Qualcomm’s Rapid Growth and Leadership in Mobile 5G and RFFE – Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series
by Daniel Newman | October 11, 2022

On this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast – Interview Series I am joined by Valerio Filauro, Vice President, Product Management, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. Our conversation takes a look at RFFE ecosystem and Qualcomm’s RFFE solution in the 5G smartphone segment.

In our conversation we discussed the following:

  • A recap on how Qualcomm developed the number one RFFE solution in the 5G smartphone segment
  • A look into how Qualcomm differentiates itself in the current ecosystem
  • A walk through the AI-based features on the Snapdragon X70 5G Modem-RF System
  • An exploration into Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon Connect” initiative
  • An overview of Qualcomm’s modem to antenna approach

It was a great conversation on a timely topic and one you won’t want to miss. To learn more about Qualcomm, check out their website here.

Watch my interview with Valerio here:

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Daniel Newman: Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Futurum Tech podcast. I’m your host Daniel Newman, principal analyst, founding partner at Futurum Research. Very excited for this interview series podcast, I’ve got Valerio Filauro with Qualcomm joining me. We’re going to be talking about 5G, RF Front End and Qualcomm’s business and how it’s rapidly grown to lead that RF Front End space for mobile. Before we jump in, before we talk anymore about that though, Valerio, welcome to this show. How you doing?

Valerio Filauro: Thank you. Very well, thank you. Hope you’re doing well. Happy to be here again.

Daniel Newman: It’s great to have you. It’s been a really great several months for Qualcomm in your space. It’s been really exciting. I look forward to talking a little bit about how you guys have really ascent it in your leadership in this RF Front End space. But before I do that, for those that don’t know, do you mind just giving a quick introduction, talking a little bit about the work you do for Qualcomm?

Valerio Filauro: Certainly. Again, I’m Valerio Filauro. I’m Vice President of Product Management here in Qualcomm for our RF Front End business unit. So looking after this past ecosystem of products component and system solution that we’re going to talk about I hope, for not just the mobile market connectivity, Wi-Fi, and now a full plethora of additional markets that we’re going after. Again, I used to be more hair, I used to have more hair before. It’s been more than a couple of intense months. It’s been a nice ride and I hope we continue here.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, you laid a softball for me there because you still got a lot more hair than I do Valerio. But yes, it’s been very intense. I actually just got back from your automotive investor day in New York, another big success for the company. This has been sort of a trend for Qualcomm, building in these areas that play very well adjacent to its core business in devices and licensing. And now, we’re starting to see a lot of success. Multiple multi-billion dollar businesses, and this RF Front End has been a super fast growing business. In fact, I believe you are now the number one RF Front End solution in the 5G smartphone segment. So maybe just as a bit of background there, talk a little bit about that adventure of getting from where you were to where you are, including the hair loss, just kidding.

Valerio Filauro: I’ll address it later but no, it’s been a tremendous growth in the past years. And of course the company has made substantial investments in RF Front End. We’ve executed by extending the portfolio as you mentioned. RF Front End is a really vast ecosystem, there are multiple functional products of applications, bands. So we spent a large number of effort and time in creating the portfolio and also enriching the technologies that gets into this portfolio. So the result is that we’ve been able to deliver best in class component.

I think the market is recognizing it, and again, best in class components, not necessarily just the actual physical component. So the acoustic, the filters, the power amplified LNA, but really the ability, I think we’ve executed very well in the ability to integrate all of this together. Again, not just from a packaging perspective, how this component integrated with each other, but also with the rest of the system. And the results, again, I think the OEM and the market has recognized the better performance, small footprint, and I think customers have started realizing the unique view that we provide, this system solution approach, which is the key I think for our success.

Daniel Newman: So you sort of set me up nicely for my next question. You’ve seen really great adoption, this has led to those strong double digit percentage growth that’s led to this run rate of the business, but the ecosystem for RF Front End presented you a pretty sizable opportunity. Long and short with 5G, the complexity of modem in RF became much larger and it was a problem that you were uniquely positioned to solve. But talk a little bit about how that unique, that differentiation that Qualcomm has that’s enabled it to so quickly become the leader in this space.

Valerio Filauro: Yeah, I mean, one way to look at it is that as you mentioned, all this announcement, everything is [inaudible] connected and just as mobile, it’s a connectivity, all the additional market they’re talking about. And of course RF Front End plays a very critical role in all of that without RF Front End, there’s nothing that pulls the data in the air and gets it from the air for process so it’s key. So it’s a very large market opportunity, very large ecosystem. So there is a number of vendors, each with their strength on the specific subset of selected functionality, selected application, a segment of the market.

And the majority of the vendors or all of them. I mean, really, well just sell components and the phone manufacturer needs to pieces all the things together historically, that’s a pretty big effort. And as the technology evolves and connectivity specifically, talk about 5G, but Wi-Fi 7, it becomes more and more demanding so they need to optimize growth exponentially. And that’s a major task that it’s become very hard for an OEM to do that, right? You need a lot of IP and that’s where Qualcomm offer the biggest value in my opinion, to differentiate. That the OEM knows how to build the devices and that should be just it, we know how to build technology and we can pieces all this things together. So the tuning, the optimization there is required, that’s where we’re investing and spending a lot of effort and IP. And that’s an opportunity, so to really offer a full solution, we like to call ourselves a solution house rather than a component vendor. We provide the full end to end rather than just components and that’s the key for us. And I think the benefit for the market coming from Qualcomm.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, I think you hit a lot of good points there. And I think the complexity is something I’ve noted extensively in various articles, podcasts, and in different research notes that I’ve published. And like I said, you point out really well the ability to develop technology that can be utilized. This is something that’s really deeply entrenched in your organization’s DNA. There’s a reason that pretty much every mobile device on the planet is using at least a few, if not many of Qualcomm’s vast patent portfolio is because you really do have that expertise, building technology.

But this has really gone a step further, enabling the company to build a new revenue stream, a diversification play outside of the handset business, which has been a big part of what Cristiano Amon has talked about from the minute he took the leadership role in the company, for instance in the X70 now, the company has used the RF mode and system now to implement more AI. So we’re hearing AI at the edge of something, was it the connected intelligent edge is what Cristiano loves to talk about. But this AI is not only doing things like image sensor, it’s also doing things that are making the performance of the RF better. It’s helping the performance in sub-6GHz which is the mid band better, talk a little bit about how this is all coming together.

Valerio Filauro: Yeah, I mean one simple way of sometimes I look at it is this AI is really, the effort is to make the air interface intelligent, which is kind of like, it’s a different view that from old story that was done. The intelligence was in the process of now the air interface becomes intelligent. And then there are a lot of opportunities, as I said, to really make the consumer experience better for that intelligence that the air interfaces require. A couple of example is, and if you look at a phone, you take your phone, you don’t see them, but there is a large number of antennas. Some simple phones four, you go up to eight and all those on antennas, each of them have to satisfy very specific requirements in terms of bands, frequency, the actual construction of the device.

And of course, somebody needs to hold the phone. So the interaction between the device itself, the antenna, your body, your hand, and the air interface itself, the channel condition that changes depending on exactly what you do, what use case. So the intelligence that we’ve been able to build in our system in one of things that we announced is this adapting and attuning or our enhanced signal boost through artificial intelligence is really the ability to dynamically anticipate all these use cases. Since we kind of have visibility, all this information that we’re studying, and really adapt the antenna tuner and therefore the antenna to each of these cases and that of course translates into better performance. So we improve generation to generation. The ability, the accuracy so to speak, improves of 30%. But that to the user translates you irrespective how you hold the phone and what bands you’re using, and the condition battery, you get faster data speed, better coverage.

And we always talk about longer battery life because that’s critical. More use cases, you want to do it more often, inform between charges and any of this is just one example. There’s a lot more on the transmit side and receives [inaudible]. But in general, it’s really that ability to dynamically change the way the RF Front End operates. It sounds very easy, but it’s a lot of complexity behind it. And then to do it in a very seamless way and in some cases like the actual devices modifies these architecture so to speak, dynamically depending on what’s the traffic, how many user are close to you, and what is the condition of your channels. And again, it’s all about performance and that the benefit to the operators is that they get better network coverage, more devices in their network, the better the perform, the benefit to the OEM is that the user are happy about their phone and the user of course gets better experience, which is what we’re striving to touch in.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, you bring some good points together Valerio. People probably don’t remember, but the way we hold the device, historically, the older phones, it used to be the difference between being able to make a call and not make a call. We’ve seen a lot of progress made to make sure that, to your point, that the devices are able to maximize what the operators and carriers are providing in terms of signal too. As we know in the 5G area, even in the LTE era, our dependence on the ability for an app to perform is so heavy on that data transmission and little improvements, single digit percentages can be huge in terms of an app working as efficiently as we would want it to versus it not working. And we all know when we get into those gaps where you can’t get good data, it’s miserable.

Yeah, remember that can you hear me now? I mean, it’s a real thing. It’s less of a thing now because of what you’re building that is enabling these signals, especially the like you said, talked about the mid band that have much bigger coverage areas to be able to give the performance that people require to run those apps. So I want to pivot really quickly from just 5G though. Cristiano, I’ve heard him talk about with the X70 5G system, RF system, you’ve focused on Snapdragon Connect. It’s something that you’re really kind of leaning into this idea that there are several ways for connectivity to work and all of them are imperative to the best user experience. So that could be 5G, that could be Wi-Fi, that could be Bluetooth. Talk a little bit about this Connect program, why is this initiative so important to you at Qualcomm?

Valerio Filauro: Yeah, because it’s real. I think it pieces everything that we’re talking about together. In other words, we talked about all the cool stuff that we’re doing from a technology perspective, building the best technology, the best products, smaller footprint, antenna tuners, artificial intelligence. But at the end of the day, really what matters is the experience and how do you make that experience recognizable by the market? So I think it’s fair that as the old use cases are becoming more and more complex and demanding, different application. We’re not talking about just mobile, we’re talking about computing, XR, IOT, automotive, each of them is different requirements and the experience changes depending on the application is. So I think it’s that product contact, the way I see it is a way to really ensuring that both the OEM but also the consumer can recognize that experience that they should expect and recognize the product that includes the component required to provide that experience. Anyway, so it provide a minimum set of requirement to deliver that experience and our recommendation to the OEMs to follow the guidelines and the labor and their experience to the consumers.

Daniel Newman: I think that’s been proven in a lot of different industries Valerio that creating standards, which is something you at Qualcomm know a little bit about, significant participation in various releases in 5G and four and three, and so that’s very much historic. But also just creating of system standards that people know and what to expect. It gives the OEMs and ODMs a certain level of expectation of how devices will perform with systems, and of course it gives the networks a certain amount of confidence to know how well devices will perform.

A lot of people don’t realize how much testing and complexity goes into bringing up a network. A phone has to be certified to actually run. There’s a lot of work that goes on in the background for all these various devices that we utilize every day to know that they’re going to perform on that network in a good way. Things like Connect have good marketing value, but they also technically have a lot of value too because this is something you standardized, you put the effort in. You’ve also released some modules specifically for just Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Now that of course is a little bit of a newer, it’s an area that people might look at as newer, it’s not really new to you, but why are you leaning into those separately from, let’s say just your traditional mobile connectivity?

Valerio Filauro: Yeah, I wouldn’t use the word separately, but I know what you mean, but it’s more a natural expansion.

Daniel Newman: Traditionally. Yeah, you got it.

Valerio Filauro: Yeah, I mean Wi-Fi undoubtedly is… We all use a lot of Wi-Fi, especially in the past couple of years where we’ve been mostly indoor. And you mentioned about standards, the Wi-Fi standards also evolved quite rapidly. Wi-Fi 6 it seems yesterday, then Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 7. So I mean, the [inaudible] that these huge freeway are being built, which is the standards, but then you have to have the right components to really take advantage of the freeway. The standards just define how to do things, then you have to actually do it and deliver their experience. So one thing where we’re trying to, as I said, extend our approach from mobile, from cellular to Wi-Fi in terms of RFFE, is really, again, once again looking at the full solution. So really building product for the need to deliver a certain level of performance when tied to the rest of the system for Wi-Fi 7 for instance.

And that’s the way the module that were just announced were defined. So as I said, the Wi-Fi standard has evolved drastically. A lot of new use cases, very demanding in terms of performance. And our product that we’ve announced are the one that can deliver the better, higher power in terms of transmit power and therefore to your point, coverage. Higher data rates and again, lower current consumption. We’ve also looked at built in those announcements as part of our module and a full solution to address co-existence or concurrency between different technology, Wi-Fi and cellular. Now all this technology, because of the use cases of all we need to operate concurrently, you’re just not browsing the web, you’re playing a Netflix 4K video while you are doing something else and all these links operate concurrently and there’s a lot of bits that get exchanged over here.

So we are extending this solution level approach again to Wi-Fi. And I think you’ll see more and more from us and really looking at way of taking advantage of the multiple technologies and offer some more of a converge solution level approach that deliver more and more benefit, even more than what they’re saying today. And again, and also we are extending that to addition market, right? It’s not just in the phone, it’s in every device that you can think of using. Lot of opportunity and very interesting use cases coming from augmented realities, even automotive, right? It’s become the most connected devices that ever existed.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, you heard me talk about the “connected intelligent edge”. That could be a vehicle, that could be a wearable, that could be a PC, another area that Qualcomm has delved into significantly where this exact system is going to be a big part of the differentiation in the go to market strategy is when you have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and 5G always connected on a PC, that PC with a Windows operating system becomes an extension of your mobile device where you’re fluidly moving. I mean, that’s a big deal. And that system will, a lot of the best qualities of the system on the mobile device will translate to the PC.

And like you said, it’ll translate to a wearable augmented reality headset. It’ll translate to a vehicle for a cloud to vehicle or vehicle to vehicle communications. There’s going to be best practices built in with what you’re doing. So let me finish this pod this way, Valerio, I have been fairly consistent on the record talking about RF Front End business as a success store for Qualcomm. The business, the growth, the scale, I think we can already chalk it up as a success. Very rarely do you enter a market and become a leader in such a short period of time, especially with so many very respectable companies that have been building for a long time. So quick round of applause. Okay, I’ll stop. That’s over. What’s next? What is the next thing for this business? What should the market be looking forward to that you can share?

Valerio Filauro: Sure. I mean the opportunities are really a lot. I mean, in the mobile space, in the cellular space, 5G. I mean, I keep saying it basically just started, right? It will continue to evolve in the very long run where I think we’re predicting another seven, eight years before the next major step. And there are multiple ways that 5G will evolve, both in terms of data rate, applications, looking at the full network. In general, providing better mobility, faster data rate, and again, you talked about the artificial intelligence, machine learning. Application on both the network side of device, that will continue so that’s one era that to look forward to the next couple of years.

And certainly more expansion from our side on the addition market, lot of opportunity use cases as I mentioned for RFFE and the rest of the platform to get a more fine tuned optimization together. Again, more about those solution level offering. And again, beyond cellular, beyond Wi-Fi, there are new technologies coming, the satellite communications, there are new bands coming, new frequencies. I can’t count anymore how many gigahertz, how many high in the spectrum are going. All of that is coming and I think there’s a lot of fun to have and a lot of good stuff that we’re working on.

Daniel Newman: Well Valerio, it is a lot of fun to know that the technology you’re building are helping keep people more connected than ever, whether it’s the way we work, the way we play, whether it’s the content we consume or the people that we have a chance to speak to. Ubiquity is the word I keep looking at. And as we move from where we are to things like autonomous vehicles, we have drones, we have metaverse and omniverse, we have a future that’s going to keep us more and more immersed. And I look to connectivity as the vehicle that makes us A, more connected. But B, it’s a steward of our connectivity in humanity.

And these are the things I want to see brought together. It’s not just about being connected to the digital world, it’s about immersing the digital world in our physical universe. Connectivity is going to be the key to making that happen and the work you’re doing is going to play a very big part. So Valerio, I want to thank you so much for joining me here on the pod. You’ve been a great guest, it’s great to hear from you and congratulations on all the success you’ve had.

Valerio Filauro: Thank you. Thank you so much. And yeah, always happy to be here.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, we’ll have to have you back because I’m sure there’ll be more to report. Been an exciting year and expect to continue to be so Valerio, thanks. For everyone out there, go ahead and hit that subscribe button, check out the show notes where you can read more about what Qualcomm is doing in the RF Front End space. We’ve got plenty of pieces that we’ve written at Futurum and of course we’ll link you over to some of the work Qualcomm is doing as well. So for this episode though, it’s time to say goodbye. Appreciate everybody tuning in. We’ll have you back again soon, but for now, I got to go. We’ll see you later, bye-bye.

About the Author

Daniel Newman is the Principal Analyst of Futurum Research and the CEO of Broadsuite Media Group. Living his life at the intersection of people and technology, Daniel works with the world’s largest technology brands exploring Digital Transformation and how it is influencing the enterprise. Read Full Bio