From Wall Street’s point of view, Qualcomm is a besieged patent empire, embroiled in legal battles all over the world and wobbling along on its glories of yesteryore. And while, it’s true, the company’s legal department is fully occupied in all these regions, the technology development side continues its work apace on the next generation of communications — 5G.
Qualcomm doesn’t just make money on old patents. It makes new ones. All the time. In fact, that’s the guiding principle of its portfolio licensing architecture. When a customer licenses the entire portfolio, it gets access to the new ones as they come along as well as all the old ones. Patents aren’t licensed by the piece at big portfolio companies. There are just too many, and they’re being updated all the time.
Nowhere was this nexus of developmental energy more in evidence this week than at Mobile World Congress 2019, where Qualcomm made an avalanche of announcements in all facets of future communications technology.
The company showed a reference design — intended to demonstrate what customers can do with Qualcomm’s latest components — for fixed wireless broadband customer premise equipment that includes the new low and high bands needed for 5G. In the future, such devices will help deliver 5G experiences to dense indoor locations. The components include the just-announced Snapdragon X55 5G modem, next generation RF front-end components, and modules for sub-6 GHz and mmWave deployments — in short, a modem-to-antenna 5G solution.
In an adjacent ring, the Qualcomm ringmaster unveiled an array of 5G solutions for the automotive sector, due out in the second half of the year. The latest rendition of the Snapdragon Automotive Platform lets automakers set up vehicles for either 4G or 5G communications, make direct connections to the rest of the immediate area, including other vehicles, transportation infrastructure, and pedestrians and cyclists with 5G phones or wearables, cellular networks, and satellite nodes for navigation. In vehicle, the 5G version of new platform supports two active SIM cards at the same time, precision positioning, multi-gigabit cloud connectivity, and the Cellular-Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) direct communications required for future autonomous and semi-autonomous driving. A connected-car reference design will be available to carmakers later this year. Expect to see these modules in vehicles in 2021.
Alongside the automotive cellular announcements, the company introduced a new WiFi and Bluetooth chip for high-performance in-vehicle experiences.
But that is not all. Oh, no! That is not all. The company made a slew of introductions in 5G-ready small cells, ultra-low-power Bluetooth audio, private 5G networks for industrial Internet of Things applications, advanced robotics, next-gen WiFi and Bluetooth for mobile devices, a complete commercial 5G PC platform for always-on, always-connected PCs, an integrated 5G mobile platform, fast charging technology, an improved artificial intelligence engine for premium smartphones, augmented and virtual reality, design wins with major handset makers, advances in mesh WiFi networks, new RF front-end solutions, new 5G applications, new multi-mode 5G modems, and new 5G test networks.
These guys are not resting on their laurels. Legal issues notwithstanding, technology development at Qualcomm is running ahead full steam.
And while recent press coverage gives the impression that China’s Huawei is leading in 5G development, no one in the public sphere is talking about the quality of those patents. Huawei is known in the industry for piling on minor patents and claiming victory by the numbers. Many of the most important 5G patents have been filed by Qualcomm, Ericsson, and others. Qualcomm, first to market with actual 5G components, has the most advanced technology impementation.
Not many U.S. companies make a similar level of investment in the future. For Qualcomm, R&D hovers at 21–25% of revenue, year in and year out. This investment nurtures an entire industry in the United States and elsewhere. One would think that the U.S. government would promote a goose that lays such golden eggs, rather than trying to hobble it. And, in fact, it did when Donald Trump prevented Hock Tan’s Broadcom from buying Qualcomm. But at the same time, the Federal Trade Commission has proceeded with a case in California that accuses Qualcomm of monopolistic practices. The company is battling similar cases in other courts around the world.
Be that as it may, while Qualcomm is trying to dig itself out of legal tussles in many jurisdictions, the company has not lost sight of its primary mission: to advance wireless technology and provide it openly to all licensees.