Qualcomm’s (QCOM) - Get Report chip business has grown its reach a lot over the last few years -- unveiling everything from Windows notebook processors and AI accelerators for servers, to ADAS/autonomous driving and small cell base station processors, to a variety of new RF front-end products for smartphones.
Now, Qualcomm is looking to take on the likes of Intel (INTC) - Get Report and Marvell Technology (MRVL) - Get Report -- and indirectly, the proprietary silicon of base station vendors -- in the broader 5G base station chip market. On Tuesday morning, the company unveiled an extensive mobile infrastructure product line that includes baseband (radio signal) and fronthaul network processors for 5G networks, as well antenna panels and RF transceiver and front-end chips.
Qualcomm notes its offerings, which are expected to start sampling in the first half of 2022, will support both traditional, sub-6GHz, mobile spectrum bands and millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands that can support very high transmission speeds over short distances. It promises the products will deliver best-in-class power consumption and make it easier for OEMs to build new base station hardware from the ground up.
The company also stresses its portfolio was built from the ground up to support virtual radio access networks (vRANs). vRANs, which have also been embraced by firms such as Intel and Nvidia (NVDA) - Get Report, allow baseband processing to be performed by off-the-shelf servers that could be located miles away from a base station’s radio heads, and which could simultaneously be used to run various other server workloads.
For 5G networks adopting such a modular architecture, Qualcomm plans to offer a Distributed Unit Platform that includes baseband and fronthaul accelerators for servers, along with a Radio Unit Platform for radio heads. It will also offer a Distributed Radio Unit Platform that covers both baseband and RF functions for more conventional, integrated, 5G base stations.
Qualcomm's Tuesday press release for the announcement, which comes as its 5G Summit event kicks off, includes positive quotes from a slew of major carriers. The carriers include AT&T, Verizon, Vodafone, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom and NTT DoCoMo.
I recently talked with Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon about his company’s new 5G infrastructure platforms, as well as about how Qualcomm more generally sees 5G deployments progressing. Here are his thoughts on several subjects of interest, slightly edited for clarity.
How Qualcomm sought to differentiate its mobile infrastructure offerings.
Amon: “What Qualcomm is basically doing is consistent [with] what we have done on the [mobile phone]. We're basically announcing a horizontal platform for next-generation 5G radio access networks...It's built from the ground up for virtualization [with] interoperable open interfaces.”
“It's a system solution with hardware, software, modem and RF [capabilities]. It basically integrates the fronthaul, integrates the baseband, and it has the ability to be scalable and modular. For example, existing incumbents as well as new players can design it for a radio unit, they can design it for a digital unit. They can design for a combination of a radio and digital unit. It supports [everything] from small cells to high-power, high-capacity, metropolitan macro cells.”
“And because we're designing for the next generation from the ground up, it's a fully converged radio architecture, including sub-6 and millimeter-wave, and the aggregation of those two...Because we've…[leveraged IP] from the device side for battery-powered devices, [it has] very disruptive power consumption. The most efficient platform [in terms of] performance per watt. That is relevant in terms of reducing the total cost of ownership of radio base stations.”
“And I'll just end by saying it's been very well received by the mobile network operators...Virtualized radio access networks, open interfaces, [the] creation of a marketplace [through] a platform for innovation, especially for the new use cases beyond phones. I think operators are very excited about that. They see Qualcomm providing [a] horizontal platform as really validating that transition, and it gives them confidence that it reduces the barrier to entry for new players to come into the space.”
Which RF chips Qualcomm’s base station platforms contain.
Amon: “[For] power amplifiers, we're going to partner. We're going to be more focused on the [RF] transceivers and the filters. But for some of the smaller deployments, especially the highly-integrated small cells or even for the millimeter-wave solutions… we will provide more components of the front end, including the power amplifier.”
Amon: “I think so, especially because we're building on our system solution capabilities at Qualcomm, so it's probably going to be the highest-integrated platform....there’ll be a lot of functionalities that can be integrated into a single platform. And also, as I mentioned before, that level of integration is allowing us to change identities. We can build for the radio unit or we can build for the digital unit. It's very flexible that way."
What Qualcomm would argue to mobile infrastructure providers are the biggest strengths of its base station platforms relative to rival processors from the likes of Intel and Marvell.
Amon: “The number one [thing] -- and I think that's kind of set Qualcomm apart from all the companies -- is our core competence...our wireless expertise. We're very uniquely positioned. If you think about the companies today [that] have the assets that probably give them leadership in their respective field -- if you think about a company like Ericsson (ERIC) - Get Report, you think a company like Huawei -- I think the other company that has the same set of capabilities that can be applied to infrastructure is Qualcomm.”
“So the number one [thing] is really our system expertise and the ability to provide a more complete solution. The other thing is the high level of integration of what Qualcomm can offer. Of course we are in early discussions...but I want to turn around your question to say, the [greatest] support that we're getting -- and it's very broad -- is from the mobile network operators. As you would expect, because they do see this as really an ability of having a horizontal platform that can enable a new vendor to come in.”
“And if you look at our individual component competitors...without the expertise of a company like Qualcomm, it is very difficult for a newcomer to build the base station. And I think that's what kind of sets us apart. It significantly reduces the barrier to entry for you to build up a virtual RAN platform.”
Whether Qualcomm’s baseband accelerators could be paired within servers with its AI 100 accelerator for deep learning inference workloads.
Amon: “Absolutely, especially for the spatial computing functions...Especially because [with] infrastructure you are looking -- more than any other application, more than what you're doing [with] inference in the data center -- you are looking for more performance per watt. And I think the ability to leverage [the] parallel computing of the AI 100 is definitely complementary to what we're doing. And I see some of those use cases leveraging that product as well.”
Qualcomm’s expectations for the rollout of mmWave 5G networks in China and other foreign markets.
Amon: “[There are] 125 operators now...basically in the process of deploying millimeter-wave... It's an exciting number. I think we're gonna start to see outside the United States, Japan [deploy] millimeter-wave, and then later Korea."
“If you just look at the recent announcement of products made by Apple (AAPL) - Get Report supporting 5G millimeter-wave, you see it is getting to scale, getting to interesting price points. And I think we're very optimistic about that."
"It takes time...in large-territory areas, before you build a new site, you have to densify the site. Unlike what happened in 3G to 4G, you can just change the equipment of an existing cell tower, [with] millimeter-wave you need to add more [cell] sites, and those take time. But we're [encouraged by] the progress."
"And at the end, we’re going to see that at least in all the developed economies [by] the end of 2021. [For] China, [there are] interesting developments about [the] Winter Olympics of 2022 [for] millimeter-wave use cases, so it kind of points to the possibility of the millimeter-wave in China in the later part of 2021. But it's hard to speculate any further at this point."
How much 5G small cell adoption respectively involves sub-6GHz and mmWave networks, and the potential for Qualcomm to create integrated 5G small cell/Wi-Fi access point solutions.
Amon: “We are seeing more and more [small cell] traction. I think the Nokia (NOK) - Get Report [small cell] announcement is a result of that, and we also see new companies, especially because small cells [are] required for a lot of indoor and private deployments as well. And I think as we go to the first phase of building...5G networks, the proliferation of millimeter-wave will happen with a small cell, so [we’re] excited about that. I think it is getting more and more traction. It has exceeded our expectations.”
“Qualcomm is the #1 silicon provider [in] retail and enterprise for Wi-Fi access points...we've been in the transition [to] Wi-Fi 6 [in the] enterprise...It is very easy to see the value for a CIO, [for] the private network deployment of 5G and Wi-Fi to happen in an integrated manner, and the opportunity for you to build this single box.”
“We do have traction today. We can’t disclose our customers’ product announcements yet, but there are developments in progress for [integrating] 5G and Wi-Fi 6 into a single box.”
Qualcomm’s expectations for the adoption of 5G home broadband solutions, which have seen limited subscriber growth to date, in the coming years.
Amon: “We don't see traction [as] limited...We have 40 operators and 30 OEMs building products with our solution. The problem is that [deploying] those solutions takes more time."
“Phones are more forgiving. If you have a bad spot of coverage in your house, you just move around with your phone. But with fixed broadband, you can't. Once you deploy, it is deployed. And so I think the carriers are being a lot more careful in building out the coverage before they start deploying those units, because...you want to deploy them [just] one time."
“But having said that, I think the business cases are very interesting, and are actually going to start to become [financially significant] for Qualcomm. So, it is going very well, and I believe the opportunity for that is going to accelerate dramatically as we go into 2021. It did accelerate because working from home [revealed] issues in fixed broadband...And we're excited that we demonstrated 5 kilometers of range with our high-power [system] with Ericsson. And I think that kind of broke new [ground] for millimeter-wave technology.”
“[This is] actually a great application [for pairing] Wi-Fi and 5G...when you use millimeter-wave. The issue is, ‘How do you make this technology more pervasive, [and] not have to deal with indoor penetration [issues]?’”
“So, in that case -- and Verizon commercialized this solution -- you use Wi-Fi to bring millimeter-wave from outside to inside the home, making one node of the mesh....This is another example [of combining] Wi-Fi 6 and 5G for fixed broadband deployment."