Qualcomm readies itself for 5G with these 3 tech breakthroughs

October 14, 2015, 5:00 AM UTC
Cellular tower at sunset
Photograph by Chris Gould — Getty Images

Carriers and the companies that support them are preparing the next generation of wireless networking called 5G. Every decade or so, the wireless industry gets behind a new set of standards to improve the cellular experience for customers and the bottom line for operators. About ten years ago operators began setting standards for 4G networks, and as customers moved from 3G to 4G LTE cell phone owners noticed a big boost in speed.

5G consumers still get a potential speed boost—perhaps up to gigabit speeds—but there is far more at stake than just cell phones. That’s because the 5G upgrade is also designed for the Internet of things. Unlike all previous versions of wireless networking, this version of technology standards setting will involve automakers, hospitals, and industrial conglomerates.

Unlike the move to 4G, which was all about boosting capacity, the move to 5G is about creating a network optimized for connecting billions of new devices to the Internet. There’s a capacity increase, because we’re still using up as much bandwidth as we can with 4K Netflix on the go and live streaming apps such as Meerkat or Periscope on our mobile phones. But operators are also adding technologies that will save on battery life, reduce the amount of data sent with a mobile data packet, and speed up the amount of time it takes the data to flow across the network for sensors, autonomous cars, and mobile medicine. That speed is known as latency, and it’s going to be a big deal for delivering telemedicine and the huge amount of data autonomous vehicles need.

“All the previous network technologies aren’t quite good enough,” said Marcus Weldon, CTO of Alcatel Lucent and president of its Bell Lab’s division. “Up until now we’ve designed the networks for people and their needs and now we’re designing it for things.”

Unsurprisingly, Qualcomm, a leading chip tech vendor in the mobile world, is already hard at work making upgrades to 5G possible. In an exclusive interview with Fortune, Qualcomm’s executive vice president and chief technology officer Matt Grob says the company has been developing new technologies to commercialize for use in 5G wireless deployments. Grob says he expects to see these in use by 2020.

Altogether these new technologies deal with increasing capacity, reliability, and latency. Before we dive in, it’s important to know that one way 5G plans to eke out more capacity is to go after spectrum that we don’t currently use in what’s known as the millimeter band.

There are several challenges with using this spectrum. The first is that in several parts of the world, including in the U.S., government agencies such as the military are using it and don’t want to share it with civilian communications. The second is that the spectrum itself doesn’t travel through walls, water, or even foliage. That means that rain or a poorly placed tree blocks reception and any data transmission. The other part of Qualcomm’s plan is to go after capacity by using Wi-Fi networks, which causes a lot of worry about how existing Wi-Fi networks will behave when cellular phones start trying to “borrow” their capacity.

Qualcomm’s solution to grabbing more spectrum is complex. It plans to build a radio that can constantly search for any available spectrum be it millimeter wave, Wi-Fi, or licensed cellular radio and use that.

If this sounds similar to what Google and Apple have proposed recently, it is similar in idea, but different in execution. Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) are searching for the best radio signals using their respective Android and iOS operating systems, but Qualcomm (QCOM) will do it at the radio level. The radios will be in both phones and in the cellular base stations that operators put in towers and around towns. One useful feature of this technology is that battery-powered sensors might contain a radio that “speaks” only using a low-power technology to save on battery life, but the base station will still be able to hear it. However, a car might have several types of radios that can speak to a base station to enhance reliability. The base stations will be able to understand it all.

That’s the first technology Qualcomm has developed. The second is around carrier aggregation. Basically, this is one of Qualcomm’s major initiatives and basically means adding a bunch of megahertz of spectrum to make one big chunk of spectrum. This matters because the amount of bandwidth an operator can deliver is limited by the size of the chunks of spectrum they have. To get to gigabit speeds over wireless an operator needs something like 80 megahertz of spectrum all packed together. But since all the good spectrum is taken we can’t make whopping huge chunks out of it. Qualcomm’s big breakthrough is figuring out how to take spectrum used in today’s LTE networks and in Wi-Fi networks and in tomorrow’s 5G networks and squish it all together in such a way that the radios see it as a contiguous lump of spectrum that consumers can use to get their gigabit mobile speeds.

Finally, after all of the spectrum and radio magic has been achieved, carriers still have to make money. Since data is getting to be a commodity and operators are worried about becoming a dumb pipe, Qualcomm has built a new network design that lets mobile operators create new business models around services. This has been a dream of companies such as Alcatel Lucent (ALU) and Cisco (CSCO) for a while and so far it hasn’t quite caught on, but with the Internet of things it’s possible that delivering location-as-a-service or perhaps selling guaranteed latency for telemedicine might finally catch on.

These three technologies are Qualcomm’s contribution to 5G networks, a future that will arrive by 2020 according to Grob. As that timeline approaches we’re going to hear from more and more companies about their vision for the 5G future. Already Intel and Verizon are working together to build a partnership around 5G technology. And the fact that Intel (INTC) is involved in this is both a testament to how much Intel’s ambitions have stretched, and how much 5G will expand the role of cellular as it encompasses the Internet of things. So get ready for gigabit wireless internet, but know that that’s the least of what’s happening in 5G.

For more on Qualcomm check out this video with CEO Steve Mollenkopf on growing a company in the mobile era:


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