Qualcomm takes stake in ip.access

Qualcomm Ventures has continued its European shopping spree with an investment in UK-based ip.access, a supplier of in-building coverage solutions including picocells and femtocells.

Last year Qualcomm Ventures announced the creation of a €100 million ($158 million) fund to invest in small European companies fostering the development of W-CDMA (so far it has bought into Arieso and Streamezzo).

And earlier this week Qualcomm bought a 40MHz chunk of L-band spectrum, prompting speculation that it might be used to deliver a mobile TV service based on its MediaFLO technology. Fast forward a few days, and here it is buying into a company with an important capability in delivering in-building service, which could be used to support such a mobile TV service.

It's tempting to put two and two together here and come up with at least five. Qualcomm denies that there is a relationship between the two decisions, and points out that the L-band spectrum was bought by the company itself, not by Qualcomm Ventures.

It's easy to see, though, how femtocells fit into Qualcomm's vision of the future of the wireless world. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say the company believes that the W-CDMA radio technology is so good that no other is needed; curiously, ip.access's other industry investors, including Cisco and Motorola, are much more closely associated with the opposite position.

Some years ago Qualcomm engaged in a sustained rubbishing of Wi-Fi as a public access technology, and more recently it has given Wimax the same treatment. Femtocells could be a route towards using W-CDMA in home and other internal networking.

The reality may be more prosaic. According to Qualcomm Ventures' self-description, its "aim is to support Qualcomm's mission of enabling and fostering 3G (W-CDMA) and wireless internet markets through strategic investments in privately-owned start-up ventures."

With femtocells at least a plausible runner in the medium term in the future development of public mobile networks, not investing anywhere in the technology might almost be deemed remiss.

In Qualcomm's own words, both it and ip.access "have developed key intellectual property for femtocells, share the same vision for femtocells, and can work together to make the most effective use of these ideas for the benefit of the whole femtocell industry."

From ip.access's perspective, the deal is somewhat more straightforward. It believes that Qualcomm is buying in because of its technological excellence and "˜traction' with operators - it claims involvement in a number of femtocell trials with major MNOs, though none of these has been publicly disclosed.

For ip.access, the money Qualcomm is bringing is less interesting than the relationships and influence - especially with standards organizations - that it adds. Privately held, the company already lists Cisco, Intel Capital, ADC and Motorola Ventures among its owners. Neither party is disclosing the extent of Qualcomm's investment, or whether it will have any significant impact on the balance of shareholdings.

We are still mildly sceptical about the femtocell business case; even though ip.access provides some interesting data on the impact that domestic femtocells can have on the capacity requirements for the macro network. But it's clear that Qualcomm's decision to buy into ip.access makes the proposition rather more credible.

Jeremy Green, Principal Analyst, Enterprise Mobility

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