Qualcomm Tries to Get More Credit for Having the Fastest Wireless Modems

With its stock price under pressure and an unwanted suitor circling, Qualcomm is trying to reset and refocus the industry conversation to highlight the value of some of its most advanced wireless technologies, which can bring incredibly high speeds to millions of mobile phone owners. But the dominant mobile chipmaker has been largely drown out so far by its increasingly bitter war with Apple and now an unsolicited takeover offer from smaller rival Broadcom.

So after months of planning, Qualcomm will conduct a major demonstration on Thursday in San Jose to showcase the value to ordinary consumers of its high-speed wireless technologies, which together are known as Gigabit LTE. In conjunction with wireless carrier T-Mobile, Qualcomm’s aim is to go beyond the simplistic boast of the ability to reach gigabit-per-second download speeds, an achievement that can only rarely if ever be hit under real world conditions, and instead focus on other benefits and new applications enabled by the higher speeds.

One demo will use wireless streaming to show clips from International Cup soccer matches in 360-degree, 3-D video via a virtual reality headset. Another will highlight how the average download speeds on older phones can increase when a few newer, gigabit-capable phones join the network and use bandwidth more efficiently.

“We talk about the peak speeds of Gigabit LTE but what actually matters is overall you’re going to have a higher average speed,” explains Cristiano Amon, executive vice president who oversees Qualcomm’s wireless chip unit.

“We want to show what the real world benefits are away from the claims about the peak speeds-which nobody believes anyway and we’re not interested in promoting,” adds Sherif Hanna, staff manager in marketing Gigabit LTE.

T-Mobile (TMUS) plans to use the event to promote the strength of its national wireless network, which now offers all the elements needed for Gigabit LTE live in 430 markets. Hundreds more markets are still getting filled in with the full set of features needed. “We still have a lot to do,” says Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile vice president for radio engineering and development.

Market Impact

So far, at least, the gigabit boast—which phones with competing modems from Intel can’t match—hasn’t had much impact in the marketplace. Only about half a dozen major brand phones available in the United States, including Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and LG’s V30, include the Qualcomm modem capable of reaching gigabit speeds. None were on sale before this year, and in two of the most popular, Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X, the feature is disabled. And while T-Mobile has rolled out the needed network upgrades in hundreds of markets, other carriers are lagging behind to varying degrees.

So despite a Qualcomm-backed advertising campaign promoting Gigabit LTE, few consumers are clamoring for it. “In practical terms, that makes very little difference to consumers, who would have to both have a compatible device and be using a part of the network that’s been upgraded to support it,” says analyst Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

As to other uses beyond the high speed boast, Dawson isn’t convinced they will make a big difference yet, either. “There will be some subtler benefits alongside speed improvements, but I would definitely expect them to be subtle rather than dramatic,” he says.

It hasn’t mattered much to Apple, either. The iPhone maker has repeatedly let competitors beat it to market with faster wireless technologies, without suffering any losses. (The first iPhone didn’t even have a 3G-capable modem.) This year’s batch of iPhones have a mix of Qualcomm gigabit-capable modems and slower modems made by Intel (INTC). So Apple simply turned off the unique features in its phones with Qualcomm modems to prevent a major performance gap between models.

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T-Mobile and Qualcomm note that even if only some customers upgrade to Gigabit LTE-capable phones, the gains in efficiency on the network benefit all users. McDiarmid calls it a “rising tide” benefit, but admits he’d like to see the iPhone get on board, too. “We’d love to see Apple step forward with gigabit features,” he says.

Qualcomm (QCOM) lumps several features together under the gigabit LTE banner. One called carrier aggregation allows a single phone to communicate with a cellular base station over two, three, or even four different spectrum bands at the same time, multiplying the amount of available bandwidth. A second, called 4X4 MIMO, uses four antennas at a time instead of two in both the phone and base station to enable more rapid communications. And a third component, called 256 QAM, packs more data in the transmissions. Qualcomm is also adding a new technique allowing phones to communicate in unlicensed spectrum bands called Licensed Assisted Access, or LAA, to the mix now.

The Gigabit LTE effort is a precursor to the next wave of wireless networks dubbed fifth generation, or 5G, coming to the U.S. mobile market likely starting in 2020.

Each of the major components of Gigabit LTE will be used with 5G as well to multiply speeds another tenfold, Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon says. The challenge may be convincing consumers they need such high speeds. At one gigabit per second, a phone can download an average high-definition movie in 30 seconds. At 10 gigabits per second, the download would be done in three seconds. But with 4K and even 8K movies ahead, not to mention virtual reality and real-time 360-degree apps, users will likely find ways to need even more bandwidth.

Qualcomm has a lead over rival modem makers, in gigabit LTE but also when it comes to 5G, says analyst Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy. “Conservatively, I’d say Intel is at least one year behind in Gigabit LTE,” he says.

Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon wants that to matter more with consumers. “I think 5G is going to change dramatically this whole thing about modems getting ‘good enough,'” he says.

As Qualcomm battles Apple (AAPL) and now has to fend off Broadcom (AVGO) to remain independent, the recognition can’t come soon enough.

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