Qualcomm looks beyond smartphones for 5G chipset opportunities

Qualcomm's Future of 5G Workshop in San Diego, California. (Martha DeGrasse)

SAN DIEGO, Calif.More than a dozen smartphones now support 5G, but smartphones are just part of the picture for the world's leading developer of mobile chipsets.

"As we get into 2020 we are already driving the next generation of products," said Qualcomm's Durga Malladi, SVP and GM for 4G and 5G. Speaking at the company's Future of 5G Workshop, Malladi highlighted 5G hotspots, customer premise equipment, and IoT modules as key growth areas for the company's 5G chipsets. He listed partners already developing 5G hotspots and customer premise equipment, including Askey, Inseego, HTC, Netcomm, Netgear, Nokia, WNC and ZTE.

Malladi also said that unlike previous generations of cellular technology, 5G may be the one that finds traction in laptop computers. "4G was about mobile broadband, but 5G is more about mobile cloud," he said. "All our documents are located in the cloud, and as you go from one device to the other you need accessibility to the cloud."

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Qualcomm is bullish on the future of 5G-enabled laptops despite the higher bandwidth promised by Wi-Fi 6. The company expects enterprises to use 5G for private networks that will offer higher levels of security and lower levels of latency than Wi-Fi can. 

Qualcomm has deployed a millimeter wave 5G network at its San Diego headquarters, and the company demonstrated several futuristic 5G use cases, including virtual reality eye glasses and a camera that sends factory data to a server instantaneously. The company noted that millimeter wave will always rely on "anchors" in lower spectrum bands to connect users to the larger network. Right now commercial millimeter wave deployments work in tandem with LTE networks, and in the future Qualcomm expects operators to anchor millimeter wave with 5G in lower bands.

As low-band 5G is deployed nationwide, Qualcomm foresees a transition from non-standalone (NSA) 5G to standalone (SA) 5G, and the company thinks this will pave the way for 5G use cases that are not based on smartphones. "We will start seeing those enterprise industrial deployments," Malladi said. "Modules are going to be key – these are the building blocks." He named seven partners that are already working with Qualcomm on 5G modules: Compal, Fibocom, Longsung, Quectel, Sierra Wireless, SIMcom, and Telit. 

But for now, 5G is very much a smartphone technology, and consumers who upgrade to 5G devices are helping Qualcomm monetize decades of investment in 5G and its predecessor technologies.

"Smartphones pay the bills for the whole ecosystem, the whole industry," said Jim Thompson, EVP and CTO, Qualcomm. Making the economics of 5G smartphones work was a challenge, and now Qualcomm wants to extend its success to other devices.  

"A lot of the research around 5G is how to make it affordable to deploy," said John Smee, Qualcomm's VP of Engineering. Qualcomm looks at silicon solutions from the operators' point of view, always working to maximize spectrum utilization and hardware flexibility. It's paid off in the smartphone space, and Qualcomm hopes that's just the start. 

RELATED: Qualcomm chips to extend 5G to more affordable smartphones

"A large ecosystem today is still based on smartphones," said Malladi. "Once we have the technology working in smartphones it is very easy to leverage that into the next generation of products."

Disclosure: Qualcomm Technologies underwrote the cost of transportation to and from this event. 

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