The News: Qualcomm breakthroughs on the path to advanced 5G include some important research milestones and innovations. These came in the form of new and updated R&D over-the-air (OTA) test networks, prototypes, and system simulations, which highlight 5G’s transformative impact on a breadth of industries, and will also help advance 5G research and product development in six critical areas: 5G mmWave, wide-area 5G, C-V2X sidelink, Industry 4.0, extended reality (XR), and green networks.
These breakthroughs are especially relevant against the backdrop of Qualcomm’s 2021 Investor Day event held in New York earlier this week, during which the technology giant outlined its expansive technology roadmap.
In Part One of this three-part series, we provided an overview of the test beds and prototypes’ six critical areas of focus. In Part Two of the series, we took a closer look at howQualcomm addressed C-V2X, smart factories and warehouses, XR, and green initiatives. In this third and final chapter, we will focus on how they help expand 5G mmWave deployments and applications, and on Qualcomm’s efforts to expand wide area 5G foundations.
Qualcomm Breakthroughs on Path to Advanced 5G Include R&D Test Beds, 5G mmWave, XR, C-V2X, and More – Part Three
Qualcomm breakthroughs on the path to advanced 5G include expanding mobile 5G mmWave deployments and applications through machine-learning, enhanced beam prediction, network topology optimization, and accelerated planning.
Qualcomm’s outdoor OTA test network in San Diego showcases a series of important new 5G mmWave capabilities that network operators will appreciate. One that immediately got my attention was the use of machine-learning to improve beam prediction. In hindsight, incorporating ML into beam prediction algorithms was a necessary evolutionary step without which networks might have otherwise struggled to hit optimal efficiency targets for usable capacity, but someone had to do it. Though still more proof-of-concept in this iteration than a fully optimized solution, this specific engineering win will nonetheless act as a foundation for future improvements in 5G network efficiency and robustness that will someday be taken for granted by operators and consumers alike. Note that a key additional benefit of this indispensable ML integration should be measurable improved battery life for devices, which, whenever dealing with 5G mmWave technologies, is a critical engineering objective for both operators looking for network efficiency improvements and handset OEMs looking to improve device performance. Looking at these advances in network and device efficiency together, I believe that they will result in more reliable connectivity and overall, better user experiences.
Speaking of ML, Qualcomm also demonstrates how to use an ML-based approach to simplify network planning with Network Topology Optimization (NTO). The model essentially consists of using IABs and repeaters with different backhaul options to compare performance and cost tradeoffs across a range of possible topology options to arrive at the most reliable, efficient, and cost-effective coverage. This model will allow network operators to better custom-build networks optimized for an infinite range of topologies a lot faster and still end up with considerably better operational efficiency. In fact, Qualcomm is also demonstrating how simple and new smart mmWave repeater prototypes can be used to test line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight coverage extensions and multiplexing efficiency to enhance system reliability. All of this to say that Qualcomm’s OTA test beds and prototypes are clearly aimed at helping network operators plan, build, and pre-optimize their 5G networks to accelerate deployments, lower costs, and maximize operational efficiency.
On a more device-centric note, Qualcomm is also demonstrating a new 5G NR-Light mmWave IoT expansion that helps reduce power consumption for NR-Light devices like wide-area surveillance cameras and sensors. This is important as it will provide more efficient support of lower-complexity devices while simultaneously minimizing the capacity impact of supporting an ever-growing number of devices. Optimizing the efficiency of 5G network resources is clearly a major engineering focus for Qualcomm and network operators, and it’s good to see it extend to NR-Light applications, which lend themselves exceptionally well to it. Overall, these demos help showcase the extent to which 5G mmWave technologies can be optimized to improve network performance, deployment efficiency, and the expanded use that is expected to be a natural result of 5G mmWave adoption as these deployments begin to scale.
Strengthening Wide-area 5G System Foundation with Subband Half Duplexing, Data-driven MIMO Optimization, New Positioning Techniques, and Device Disaggregation
While exciting, 5G mmWave is only part of the equation. Qualcomm is also very much focused on strengthening the wide-area 5G system foundation, another area where the wireless giant can make some impressive engineering leaps with perhaps more readily scalable ramifications alongside (and independently of) mmWave deployments. In that vein, several of Qualcomm’s OTA test beds and demos focus on improving wide-area 5G system efficiencies. For instance, Qualcomm’s 5G OTA test network can now support subband half-duplexing to enable dynamic TDD operation. Because in dynamic TDD mode, both uplink and downlink use the same spectrum frequencies but at different times, as opposed to FDD mode, in which both uplink and downlink transmit at the same time but at different spectrum frequencies, and adjacent cells can adapt dynamically to variable traffic needs, this new capability will provide significantly more flexible service multiplexing options for operators, which will in turn result in latency and coverage improvements for users.
Qualcomm is also making significant progress in improving massive MIMO operations. Specifically, by incorporating new cross-node machine-learning-based channel state feedback techniques, Qualcomm has discovered an elegant way to improve system capacity and user throughput simultaneously. But the real breakthrough here is that this technique has the potential to completely transform current wireless design doctrine from a traditional model-based approach to a far more adaptive data-driven design approach, which is generally aligned with the network topology optimization mentioned in the previous section. In other words, the integration of ML in Qualcomm’s network optimization efforts is already paying off and is likely to have already found an enthusiastic audience with 5G network engineers and operators.
On the device end, Qualcomm is also demonstrating end-to-end system simulations to demonstrate how 5G NR-Light can expand 5G to entirely new device tiers, as well as support both broader coverage and more energy-efficient small data transfers. Qualcomm is also showcasing how a 5G system’s device stack can be made to support new subscription models and richer user experiences for services hosted on tethered devices through 5G device disaggregation. The point of device disaggregation is to simplify how devices tether to a 5G device that acts as a hub, and so a new type of architecture could enable better support for multiple devices with optimized performance under a single subscription.
Lastly, Qualcomm is also showing off its new single/multi-cell wide-area 5G positioning prototype, again enhanced by machine-learning and sensor fusion, demonstrating that 3GPP Rel-16 accuracy targets are now within reach and in real implementation. The use cases for this capability are wide-ranging, from IIoT and private networks, like locating parts, shelves, robots, and geofenced autonomous vehicles in industry 4.0 environments, to the ability to locate and track parcels, food deliveries, rental vehicles, and even lost pets, on public 5G networks.
Qualcomm Keeps Demonstrating its Leadership in Wireless Technologies by Consistently Delivering Critical Innovation Across Every Slice of the 5G Ecosystem
In closing, Qualcomm keeps delivering on the 5G leadership front. As I mentioned in Part One of this series, the main overall takeaway for me is that Qualcomm’s OTA test networks, prototypes, and system simulations highlight, on one hand, the rapid progress of cutting edge 5G research and development, and on the other, the extent to which Qualcomm keeps driving the pace, depth, and breadth of these successive waves of innovation. I am particularly impressed with Qualcomm’s ability to keep taking the lead on solving such a wide range of complex engineering problems so consistently and coherently, particularly with regard to the 5G ecosystem as a whole. It would be one thing to maintain a leadership position with regard to RF, 5G modems, and even a versatile platform like Snapdragon, but these OTA test beds and prototypes also showcase cutting edge and highly scalable use cases for mobile networks operators, Industry 4.0 environments, XR, the IOT and the IIOT, and C-V2X applications, to say nothing of the intersectionality of these areas of focus with machine-learning, 5G NR-light, and power efficiency. Not only do they help highlight what are perhaps less visible aspects of Qualcomm’s leadership in the wireless space, they also illustrate the extent to which the company continues to challenge the boundaries of 5G technologies, and drives the industry ever closer to 5G Advanced.
The metronome-like regularity with which Qualcomm brings innovations like these to the market also highlights the extent to which 5G innovation is not as static or monolithic as it may sometimes seem to the average network user. 5G is a vast, ever-shifting sea of fast-moving currents and targets that have to be properly harnessed in such a way that interoperability standards, performance improvements, and new solutions can be applied by OEMs, solutions providers, and technology implementers, including network operators, with little to no operational friction, as little risk as possible, and at as low a cost as possible as well. At the very least, Qualcomm understands how to mitigate upfront investment costs by improving operational costs on the back end, through ML-based performance efficiencies and effective power-saving techniques.
Year after year, Qualcomm’s test beds and demos provide industry leaders with not only proofs of concept for the types of new and emerging capabilities, engineering solutions, and optimizations that 5G technologies can bring to most industries in 2022, but a foundational beachhead upon which to build their next generation of deployments, innovations, solutions, and services. Clearly, Qualcomm’s focus points to the immense potential of 5G at the mobile network layer, but it also offers us a glimpse of the importance to the growth of the 5G ecosystem of the automotive and smart manufacturing sectors, as well as the role that cloud providers, logistics companies, and device OEMs will continue to play in the expansion of 5G.
Qualcomm’s test networks, prototypes, and system simulations may be on the cutting edge today, but they represent the 5G innovation benchmarks that the above industries need to be designing for and with right now and for the next few years. As with most truly innovative companies, one of the ways that Qualcomm holds onto its leadership position in the 5G and wireless space is by operating in a perpetual ‘build it and they will come’ mode. Test networks, prototypes, and system simulations like these essentially serve as a regular show-and-tell to let the industry know where it needs to invest, and with whom. Therefore, every single new capability and performance optimization highlighted here will almost assuredly have significant direct design implications for 5G and 5G-adjacent technology categories across virtually all industries.
In short, these semi-annual research milestones and innovations don’t just serve as reminders of 5G’s horizontally transformative potential, but also of Qualcomm’s continued leadership, year after year, in building and optimizing the 5G system foundation and the broader ecosystem it serves. The value of this single-technology roadmap approach to innovation became particularly clear as Qualcomm articulated its vision and roadmap to investors last week and clarified for investors and the market how the solutions the innovation giant is developing will help drive opportunity and growth for itself and the wireless ecosystem at large across key market segments. As Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon explained when he spoke about “enabling a world in which everyone and everything is intelligently connected,” the value of these innovations clearly extends beyond mobile now, with particular emphasis on automotive, the broad IoT, and XR (a.k.a. The metaverse / omniverse), where Qualcomm and the ecosystem it serves will be able to apply these breakthroughs over the course of the next decade and beyond.
Be on the lookout for my upcoming comprehensive recap and analysis of Qualcomm’s Investor Day 2021 presentations, which will bring additional context to this three-part series.
Disclosure: Futurum Research is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.