(Veteran tech columnist Jon Markman publishes Strategic Advantage, a popular daily newsletter about the great digital transformation of business, entertainment and society -- and how to invest in it. Click here for a free two-week trial.)


The fifth generation wireless boom is finally here and it’s showing up in the business prospects of Qualcomm ( (QCOM) - Get Report). This is why investors should continue to buy shares.

The San Diego, Calif.-based company reported explosive sales growth Wednesday and guided its forecast sharply higher. Demand from handset, automotive and other sectors is off the charts.

Shares popped 13% Thursday but all signs point to even higher prices ahead.

Qualcomm has been on a roll since April 2019 when managers settled a longstanding royalty dispute with Apple ( (AAPL) - Get Report). Executives at the iPhone maker awarded Qualcomm at least $4.5 billion and a six-year deal to supply its industry leading 5G modems.

The wireless tech brings the potential of a 1000x improvement in bandwidth and a 10x reduction in latency, or lag. With that kind of performance entirely new applications open up for Apple, like augmented reality for gaming and productivity.

Offering 5G-ready handsets also puts Apple in a more competitive positions with Chinese and Korean smartphone makers that are moving their entire portfolios in that direction.

And that is sort of the point.

What’s happening with 5G is the beginning of a megatrend. Sooner than later the technology is going to find its way into everything with an internet connection. That means cars and potentially billions of sensors and switches on factory floors, shipping containers and traffic lights.

Qualcomm is uniquely positioned to benefit from all of this and it is going to happen fast.

Steven Mollenkopf, chief executive officer summed up the outlook succinctly.

“Our fiscal fourth quarter results demonstrate that our investments in 5G are coming to fruition and showing benefits in our licensing and product businesses,” Mollenkopf said in a press release.

Licenses are key. For a long time Qualcomm and Apple squabbled over fees. Even as the company continued to make iPhones that used Qualcomm intellectual property, executives complained that they were being charged too much to use patents and other IP they deemed essential to making smartphone radios connect to networks. The complaint was not out of line.

A South Korean trade authority, in 2016 fined Qualcomm in 853 million for violating antitrust laws. And regulators across the globe have lines up to take their short at the company, according to a report at the Verge.

However, the San Diego company did not back down from Apple. Instead, managers went on the offensive. They won iPhone bans in Germany and China. They pushed Apple to a court date in United States. And then, inexplicably, Apple managers settled. They simply gave up everything managers demanded, and supplier contract, too.

This is important for investors. It means Qualcomm, through the strength of its IP portfolio and sheer management determination, is setup to be a toll taker on the road to 5G. And since many millions of new devices will get the technology, Qualcomm shareholders are set to win big.

This is all starting to show up in the financials. The company reported $5 billion in fourth quarter revenue, an increase of 38% year over year. And business was better across the board.

The handset segment had sales of $10.5 billion, up from $9.8 billion in 2019. Automotive grew to $644 million, from $640 million. Internet of things, the business of connecting sensors, switches and other devices to networks, reached $3 billion, an increase of about $300 million. And RF front-end, a catch-all category for 4G, 5G and other radio frequency products, jumped to $2.7 billion, from only $1.48 billion a year ago.

For the first quarter of 2021 Qualcomm managers now expect sales between $7.8 billion to $8.6 billion. That is well ahead of the previous guidance of $7.2 billion.

Shares trade at 18.8x forward earnings and 7.5x sales. Given where the business could be in three years this is simply too inexpensive. Based on sales growth and free cash flow Qualcomm shares should trade to $180 over the next 12 months, a 24% from current levels.

Investors should buy shares into weakness.