Qualcomm unleashed a bunch of news at CES, the big consumer tech show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. But the most significant bit was related to the future of cellular networks for the Internet of things and two new Wi-Fi technologies that consumers might benefit from. It also shared new partnerships with Audi, a Chinese smartphone maker and a Tencent, which is making a drone using the chip firm’s technology.
In general, the cell phone product announcements were meager with Chinese TV manufacturer LeTV announcing that its Le Max Pro would be the first smartphone that would use Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 820 chip. Qualcomm (QCOM) might be excited, but the lack of a major smartphone maker such as Samsung using the silicon means that Qualcomm turned up to the tech industry’s big party with a D-list celebrity on its arm.
The other news was much better. Qualcomm announced that Audi was using its automotive chip that combines radio connectivity, intelligence, and a variety of machine learning inside its infotainment and advanced driver assistance system platform. ADAS platforms, as they are called, use cameras, sensors technology, and data networks to automate and enhance safety features in the car, including adaptive cruise control, automated braking, blind spot warnings and keeping the driver in the correct lane.
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Qualcomm is also announcing a new chip for the auto industry called Snapdragon 820 Automotive that is built on a similar platform as its smart phone 820 platform. But it adds a few vehicular modifications such as the vehicle to vehicle communication network capabilities and some artificial intelligence needed for the ADAS platform. Combining the platforms helps cut down on R&D and makes manufacturing a bit easier. It also introduced a modular system for cars, and Ricky Hudi, executive vice president for electronic development at Audi AG, explained that he anticipated swapping out the radios and brains that make the car smart every three years.
That’s a number worth noting for financial analysts trying to figure out how the connected car might drive the refresh cycles at chip firms. Qualcomm also announced a modular automotive box that can be easily swapped out at the dealer when a consumer finds their maps loading too slow or their connected car software bogging down on older application processors.
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On the networking side the new LTE modem Qualcomm announced for the Internet of things would allow devices to use the cellular network to send small amounts of data, but it would last for 10 years on two AA batteries. Current LTE modems suck batteries at pretty rapid-fire clip, but Qualcomm believes it has a way to limit the data flow and the number of times any sensor containing the new LTE modem would report back, so it wouldn’t suck too much juice. This makes it nice for smart cities use cases like sensors that test how bridges are holding up or roadway conditions.
Closer to home, Qualcomm is building out a network of companies to promote a super fast device-to-device Wi-Fi standard that is currently called 802.11ad and uses the 60 gigahertz spectrum that was once used for Ultra Wideband. The new standard transmits multi-gigabit streams of data over really close distances using a variation of Wi-Fi. This could be good for transmitting an HD video quickly, and at the press conference, Steve Mollenkopf, Qualcomm’s CEO, indicated that soon we’d want to transmit so much data between our computers and tablets, that this tech would come into vogue.
The use of the 60 gigahertz spectrum actually was around a decade ago as Ultra Wideband, and venture firms put a few hundred million into startups building chips to make this technology the next big thing. The idea was it would allow folks to replace the cords on their monitors with a wireless technology kind of how people use Bluetooth keyboards and mice today. But it never happened. Radio technologies come back from the dead all the time, so maybe we really have found a killer use case for the technology this time. Keep an eye on Qualcomm’s efforts around 802.11ad.
The final technology that’s worth writing about is the self organizing Wi-Fi networks. I’m waiting for more details, but essentially what Mollenkopf has said Qualcomm has done is take the learnings from building cellular networks that can configure, manage, and heal themselves, and applied it to Wi-Fi networks. This matters because the Wi-Fi network environment in homes, neighborhoods and cities is getting more complicated. We’re bringing on more devices and layering on more networks while demanding better connectivity.
There is a lot of promise here if Qualcomm can convince other companies to get on the bandwagon and embed the Wi-FI SON technology into routers and other Wi-Fi enabled devices. I plan on finding out more details in an interview with Qualcomm president Derek Aberle on Wednesday. Stay tuned.