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The 5G Factor: Qualcomm Readies 5G Ecosystem to Meet Full Potential

The 5G Factor: Qualcomm Readies 5G Ecosystem to Meet Full Potential

In this episode of The 5G Factor, we focus on what is driving the swift worldwide expansion of 5G services and what next steps are critical for the 5G ecosystem to fulfill its overall potential. We identify the key steps as including understanding 5G Advanced and why it defines the next major phase of 5G, why accelerating the transition to the 5G Standalone (SA) network architecture is essential, and the impact of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and edge computing on significantly improving 5G capabilities.

My guest today is Durga Malladi, SVP & GM, Technology Planning & Edge Solutions, Qualcomm. Durga is a most welcomed return guest on this show, and astutely shares his insights and perspective on the strategic direction of the global 5G market and why Qualcomm is ready to support and advance the next steps essential to quickly unleash 5G innovation and progress. This includes preparing for 5G Advanced breakthroughs, the criticality of accelerating 5G SA progress, and the impact that AI/ML and edge computing technologies are having on the optimization of 5G connectivity and capabilities.

To start our discussion, we explore the four pillars that are viewed as key to the successful commercialization of 5G Advanced in the next 12-36 months. The materialization of these four pillars is integral to establishing the ecosystem foundation for 5G Advanced, augmenting all the features being defined in 3GPP Release 18 and Release 19. Plus, we look ahead beyond 2025 to explore the breakthrough applications that will be ready for prime time as a result such as 5G multicast/broadcast and 5G for XR and drones.

Our conversation examined the following key topics:

  • Why CSPs need to accelerate their transition to 5G SA network architectures to assure that the mobile ecosystem is fully prepared for 5G Advanced.
  • How 5G SA enables new differentiated services that can generate revenue streams through capabilities such as network slicing and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) as well as realizing major cost savings by moving away from maintaining 5G and LTE/4G core networks.
  • Only devices in 5G SA mode support new performance enhancements such as power saving features and spectrum aggregation.
  • Where 5G SA is already delivering benefits to CSP networks in key markets such as China and India (Jio).
  • The impact of today’s disruptive technologies, such as AI/ML and edge computing, on driving 5G connectivity improvements in key areas such as better speeds, location accuracy, coverage, link robustness, and mobility.
  • How the 5G network can play a vital role in assuring that CSPs meet their sustainability and ESG objectives.

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Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.


Ron Westfall: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast. I’m your host, Ron Westfall, research director here at The Futurum Group. In this episode we’re going to talk about the state of the global 5G market. We’re going to talk about 5G advanced and we’re going to talk about 5G standalone benefits, as well as the impact of key technologies such as AI, machine learning, and edge computing that is driving 5G innovation and so much more. Today, joining us is a most distinguished colleague and luminary in the 5G universe, Durga Malladi, the godfather of 5G. Good day, Durga. How’s it going?

Durga Malladi: Good. Nice to see you again. It’s been a while, Ron.

Ron Westfall: Wonderful, yes. Yeah, welcome back and certainly we are most pleased and thank you again for joining us. Durga, please tell us about yourself and your role at Qualcomm.

Durga Malladi: First of all, thanks for having me on the show, Ron. I always enjoy these conversations. I have taken on a expanded set of responsibilities inside Qualcomm. My title is I’m a senior vice president and general manager for a newly created business unit called the technology planning and its solutions. It spans all of the technology that we as Qualcomm create and bring to the market. This includes everything in connectivity, starting of course with 5G, wifi, Bluetooth, GNSS, and these days increasingly with SATCOM, or satellite communications.

That’s in the connectivity bucket. Everything related to AI, our AI software tools, our AI software stack, specifically bringing in generative AI to the edge into devices and at the edge of the network. All of our processors, which power devices of all sorts, from IOT to automotive and hand sets and computes them somewhere in the middle in HR devices, these processes are typically our CPU GPU or NPU based. All of our multimedia IP services, camera, audio, video at a very high level. Our software management that goes across all of our business units. These days in conjunction with AI, we talk about our data management and analytics platforms. It’s an expanded scope and it’s been about maybe four months or so since I officially took on this role, but really hitting a stride on this.

Ron Westfall: Wow, that’s an impressive array of responsibilities. I think that definitely is setting the foundation for framing our conversation today. With that background, let’s jump right in and start with our perspective on the status of the 5G market and its ongoing expansion globally.
From your view, Durga, what do you think is driving 5G’s planet wide growth? For instance, what should folks understand about why 5G is gaining a greater foothold throughout the mobile and the digital ecosystems?

Durga Malladi: Good question, Ron. It’s important to actually understand the full landscape of where we’re today, anywhere on the planet on 5G. It’s the fifth year of 5G. If you start back in spring of 2019 when the initial launches were in US and Korea in the beginning followed by Europe, Japan and China. But if you take a snapshot of today, just in terms of where do we see 5G launches already operate? In addition to those regions that we mentioned, other regions have started seeing a very large number of 5G deployments, 5G roll-outs. These include a pretty gigantic market in India. 5G launches after the spectrum was auctioned off earlier last year, the 5G launches began late last year. One of the things that we are beginning to see is that if you are in the business of launching 5G today, would you start from where everyone else launched in 2019, which was what was called as the non-standalone mode, wherein you have both the usage of 4G and 5G networks, radios concurrently or would you rather start with 5G standalone? It so happened that one of the operators in India started off the bat with standalone war. That’s a trend line that you’re beginning to see. In addition to India, in Middle East, in Southeast Asia and in LATAM, there’ve been a large number of 5G launches since then. This is just a baseline expansion of 5G footprint around the globe.

The other part that we are seeing is we predicted this back in 2019, that over time there will be two sets of trend lines in the evolution of 5G topology. One is on the mobile broadband front, where we continuously see increased aggregation of spectrum in the low bands, the FTD bands, and the mid-bands, TDD bands in a very flexible mix and match of these spectrum assets, which means today state of the art is around four to five carriers. State-of-the-art, like the cutting-edge devices today support four to five carriers getting aggregated at the same time. It’s a mix and match of a handful of TDD carriers and the rest of them are TD carriers. The reason I stress upon that is it’s not something that it was not obvious and it wasn’t done quite that way during 4G days. It was towards the tail end of 4G that we began to see glimpses of it, but today we take it as stable stakes. That’s what is done in 5G today. It really gives an operator full flexibility, bring in your FTD assets and TTD assets and sub six spectrum and put it all together. Similarly, the markets that eventually that launched with millimeter wave spectrum back in 2019 and 2020, there’s still been a linear increase in the number of sites and regions where millimeter wave is being either deployed or being tested. US and Japan take the lead in terms of millimeter wave deployments, but there were tons of trials to kick the tires and make sure that the technology works, especially with standalone millimeter wave. We saw a lot of that in China and there are some trials that are ongoing in India and other parts of Southeast Asia and Middle East.

It’s been a really good journey in terms of the expansion of 5G as a technology into the network as we also see proliferation of different kinds of devices. What started off with smartphones back in 2019, today you can actually walk into a store, you can get a smartphone which has 5G of course, you can get a laptop that has inbuilt 5G. If you want to have gigabit data rates directly to your home and especially even on the uplink, if you want to have extremely high data rates, you have what is nowadays called as wireless fiber, the ability to use 5G for fixed wireless access and providing high-speed connectivity to residences, small businesses, and enterprises. These are the general themes and the kinds of devices that we’ve seen in the market today. Of course, there are IOT devices and automotive cars these days, which for the longest period of time around 4G. We are beginning to see the initial adoption of 5G technologies into vehicles. It’s probably been the fastest technology when it comes to this level of maturity in less than five years. If you just go back in time and look at all the other Gs, it’s quite staggering and impressive.

Ron Westfall: Yeah, I find it encouraging and that’s an excellent level set and kickoff Durga, in terms of setting the foundation for what is today’s 5G market. What is the state of it? I think what’s also important is that it’s triggering a couple of key thoughts. For example, the global expansion of 5G is key to providing a foundation for 5G to really reach its ultimate full potential. I believe it’s important to address the future of 5G as a result. For example, 5G advanced standards and capabilities that are going to be integral for 5G to fulfill that potential. Durga, can you tell us more about 5G advanced? What is it that I think that our audience wants to know is what about 5G advanced? What it can bring to the overall 5G ecosystem, especially in the next 12 to 36 months?

Durga Malladi: Very important and good question. I’m going to spend some time in terms of what the current landscape and the trend lines are when it comes to these advanced features. One of the releases that finished late last year, and we’ll start seeing devices and networks coming up with that 5G technology, it’s called release 17 of 5G. Formally speaking, it’s not really 5G advanced, but it actually lays the foundation towards that and it’ll become quite apparent as I mention it. For the first time since the first two releases of 5G, this will be the third release, release 17. There are two themes over here. The first theme is about continuous evolution of features that we already know. There will still be continuous evolutions and enhancement of different ways of doing performing MIMO, providing coverage enhancements, power consumption, reduction in devices and in the networks, different protocols and procedures in place to do that. So that’s a continuous evolution of what we have already done. Fine-tuning it a little bit more, but it’s more incremental evolution as opposed to something drastically different. That’s one bucket of features. The second bucket of features is actually a little bit of a throwback and it’s called as reduced capability. This is an important one. Reduced capability of devices or RedCap as it’s called, is really you should think of it as a 5G lite. It’s a lighter version of 5G instead of 100 megahertz, 200 and 300 megahertz capability in devices going up to 10 gigabits per second, which stretches the envelope. It’s actually going the other way around, where instead of very large bandwidth, you go all the way down to 20 megahertz and you actually don’t use four receive antennas, but two receive antennas, one to two receive. Sometimes it’s even one.

The peak data rates are about 100 to 200 megabits per second, which by the way is plenty already. We talk of gigabits per second all the time, but this reduced cap or RedCap based devices will form the foundation for proliferation of 5G at the lowest tier. This would be the true democratization of 5G adoption in devices that historically we would think of as low end devices, very cost sensitive, but it’s also great for mass adoption. In those device categories, the cost matters. The data rates are not as important, but connectivity is extremely important. There are other KPIs that matter. Power consumption could be a little more latency tolerant and so on. Think of water meters, gas meters, going on to smaller form factor devices, whether it’s industrial robots or … effectively it’s good enough connectivity, 100 to 200 megabits per second, but at the same time, it’s in a different segment of device price points altogether. It’s at a true democratization in that sense. This technology will become important even in more cutting edge devices, but of the smaller form factor like XR devices. Imagine if you want to eventually wear glasses with an embedded 5G modem inside, then these are the technical elements that actually play a role. RedCap therefore has a huge potential and we’re just getting started. Mind you, there’s plenty of consumers who will be more than happy taking that 100 megabits per second and saying “That’s good enough for my fixed wireless access.” Who’s to say that you need a gigabit connectivity all the time? There is always a segment where you can even use it for basic broadband connectivity as well, important segment. That’s the second pillar if you will.

The third one actually goes in a way that it’s also retro in the sense that satellite communications in the last two years have suddenly become very popular. The popularity is not because of the fact that it’s satellite communications. That’s always existed for a very long time, but the fact that you can now perform communications through satellites using your regular devices. Take your regular handset, nothing new, nothing that’s really bulky, not a new device of any kind, but you use your existing smartphone as an example, your existing laptop if you will, and you’re connected via satellite to anywhere in the world. This is really an important segment which started off at basic emergency services using your smartphone, but it has legs as we go beyond that into providing connectivity, very low data rate connectivity for IOT devices, which literally could be in the middle of nowhere, but there’s no terrestrial network that covers it. It’s an easy way of doing that. Imagine you have maybe a windmill farm that’s located out in the middle of nowhere. You want basic connectivity just monitoring the health of that system, then you would have that. Similarly, some sort of an oil or a gas pipeline. You just want basic telemetry coming up from there. SATCOM actually there is extremely important. We talked about RedCap and satcom. The other part that’s increasingly coming up is the idea of improving positioning technologies, because something that we don’t usually think through very carefully is positioning always based upon GPS? And the answer is no.

Increasingly, we use terrestrial signals complimenting GPS and all the other constellations in the world. Improvements in terms of positioning and positioning accuracy is a fourth pillar where there’s a lot of emphasis. In this case, the holy grail is to get towards centimeter level accuracy, both indoor and outdoor and preferably by also knowing not just where you are in terms of lat and long location, but also in terms of the height. For instance, I’m in my building and if I tell you I’m in this building, it’s not good enough for you. You might say, “Well, which floor?” That’s like the third axis, the Z axis that becomes important. These are the themes that we are seeing in release 17. As we go further, release 18 is the true 5G advanced moniker as denoted by 3GPP, it expands upon all of this. Taking that satellite communications, which is for low data rates. Well, why stop at low data rates? Why can’t we do voice and video and add more capabilities on top of that? That’s the next thing. In addition to expansion, in terms of the satcom capability, a couple of other themes that come in are really trying to think about where does cellular technology go as we pay attention to other happenings in the tech sector? For instance, there’s a lot of buzz associated with AI, and we’ll get to that. What are the techniques from AI that we can start bringing into cellular? We have the next generation of their interface perhaps as we head towards 6G direction, but in the next generation of their interface, what techniques from AI should start coming in as a part of the standardization process? Because you don’t have to standardize everything, but there are some things which would be helpful to standardize. Further, a more efficient way of using spectrum is to use what is known as full duplex, wherein you’re using the same spectrum for both transmit and receive. Well, we do that for TDD today, but full duplex would actually mean that you’re using it concurrently. That has all sorts of other techniques.

Well, how do you make sure that you’re transmitting and receiving in exactly the same band at the same time time? Those are the studies that have started as a part of 5G advanced evolution going beyond that. The formal work as a part of 5G advanced will therefore go in the direction, improvements and energy savings in the networks. It’s an important aspect for most operators as they measure their own carbon footprint and say, how much energy am I consuming as a part of 5G networks? Of course in devices, but certainly on 5G networks, better ways of providing coverage with smart repeaters, improvements in broadcast technology as we start taking a renewed look at what new services we can bring in with broadcast. But one underlying theme as I mentioned this is for all of this, we truly need 5G standalone. We have to jettison the non-standalone and move towards 5G standalone, not because you cannot do it with non-standalone mode. It just makes it so much simpler to start doing this with standalone work and having that core network, which is like a clean slate that brings in the best features of 5G.

Ron Westfall: Yeah, that’s essentially true from my view. I think the four pillars are a key takeaway for anybody who is a decision maker in the 5G ecosystem and the 5G realm. I think that one thing that is also going to be important is that 5G advanced fully aligns, as you pointed out, Durga, to advancing the sustainability goals of the CSPs as well as any other supplier out there in terms of meeting strategic objectives that are being increasingly required and measured by governments across the world. That’s I think an excellent segue, the fact that 5G advance naturally needs 5G standalone as a precursor, a harbinger for making sure that the adoption of 5G advanced is smoother and all the more successful. So to shift over a little bit from your view, what are the immediate benefits of 5G standalone implementations and where are we seeing these 5G standalone benefits today?

Durga Malladi: 5G standalone, just to get to the basics of it, uses both 5G radios and a brand new port network that brings in new features in a far more elegant manner. Let’s start with one of the features that’s quite popular these days with the operator community, and that’s called network slicing. Network slicing in the simplest possible way is the ability to map any application to a specific what is called as a slice and provide it with a very different quality of service compared to some of the other applications. Now, you might think, well that sounds a lot like regular QoS. We’ve done that in 3G, we’ve done that in 4G. What’s real? What’s so different about slicing? Well, during 3G days, I would argue that we would basically say there are two kinds of services. There’s voice and there’s everything else. I know it’s a very simplistic way of putting it, but it actually cuts to the chase of this is what it is. In 4G, we were a little more nuanced and we talked about this voice and this video, which is a combination of multiple things, but clearly data-driven. Then there are other services which are things like web browsing and so on. This was a QoS or quality of service centric view of what you could do. What we’ve done with 5G network slicing is to take it to one more level after that and say, “Well, when you say video, but what kind of video? Can I treat my traffic on YouTube?” Which is one kind of video “differently from say video that I might be watching something on Netflix?” Versus maybe the video is through Teams. I’m in the middle of a teams call or some Zoom call, but it’s work related, so I want that to be higher priority even though that is video, but I want that video to be higher priority than some of the other examples that I made.

It’s the ability to distinguish at an application layer, not just at the video layer, if you will. That actually is a far more powerful concept and you can see why operators are truly excited about the prospects of bringing this in because they can provide these differentiated services to the end consumers on one hand. On the backend, there’s a new business model that can evolve because the carriers can then have these conversations with an enterprise CIO or with CTOs of these other application providers and say, “Hey, I can provide you these differentiated services. So what’s the business model that comes to?” It can only be done through 5G standalone. It’s not like it couldn’t have been done in 4G, it’s just that 5G standalone makes it so much cleaner and simpler to do it. There are rules and regulations which are protocols set in place, so the devices have to do mapping of applications to slices in a very prescribed manner. Similarly, the networks actually do certain things. It’s one of the use cases that really stands out. Some of the other ones are more subtle, but equally important. From a device standpoint, if you go to the lowest end of the devices, instead of simultaneously running two radios, which is what non-standalone mode would be, because you do have to light up both 4G and 5G radios, now you only are either in 4G or in 5G mode, but not simultaneously at the same time, which reduces the total number of components that are needed. The software stack footprint gets smaller, it effectively makes those low-end devices far more prolific.

That actually democratizes again what I mentioned earlier in terms of adoption of 5G in the lowest tier. That actually helps quite a bit there. Other services include the ability to provide in addition to the quality of service, the way to bring in the mix and match of TTD and FTD carriers and MIMO and millimeter also thrown in. It just so turns out it’s much more easier when we do it through standalone mode. It’s a more subtle technical point, but it does make it extremely attractive. If you also take a look at even from millimeter wave and the usage of millimeter wave for fixed wireless access from an operator standpoint, one could start thinking in terms of using millimeter wave only, no sub six associated with it, just millimeter wave to provide fixed wireless access services. You use that spectrum only for one service, so that you can actually then focus on, for smartphones, you can use a mix and match of sub six and millimeter wave, but for one of the other services you only focus on millimeter wave. There’s a lot of flexibility that’s provided with standalone mode. That’s the reason why pretty much every operator in the world has either taken steps already in the direction of migration to 5G standalone, if not already started deploying 5G standalone.

Ron Westfall: Yeah, I think it’s key. I think we’ve seen the information out there that about 22% of the operators that have invested in 5G have implemented 5G standalone. The good news is that number will go up. It’s inevitable. That I think will make a big difference in terms of how users and customers will all the more adopt and perceive 5G overall. And another thing that I think is going to be a major factor is, and you touched on it already Durga, is the role that some emerging technologies, those that can be viewed as disruptive are going to have on 5G. That I think includes AI, machine learning, and edge computing. That’s going to definitely influence the evolution of 5G, certainly 5G standalone, but 5G advanced overall. Durga, from your view, how do you see AI, ML, and edge computing driving new 5G capabilities and innovation in key areas such as better speeds, improved energy efficiency, location accuracy, link robustness and mobility to name a few? What do you see down the road?

Durga Malladi: This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. The confluence of AI and 5G coming together, there’s so much potential involved in this. AI has improved every single technical segment that it has entered with image processing, with voice processing. Now as we take a look at cellular as Qualcomm, we decided we don’t have to necessarily wait for standardization of the technology or adoption of AI into 5G standards in one formal way or the other, but we embraced it from a long time back. Starting from last year, we started bringing in AI based technology embedded into our 5G modem RF platforms. Our very first announcement in this segment was with what we called as our X 70 platform. This was early last year at Mobile World Congress. We made an announcement that the first generation of features that we brought in, it’s exactly along the lines of improvements in terms of the device throughput and the user experience. Then this year we went one step further and we made our announcement of a dedicated AI tensor accelerator, it’s a hardware block that’s embedded within our modem RF platforms that shows our commitment towards that as we bring in new capabilities. Improvement in location fixes, improvements in beam forming, the way you hold your smartphone, and the way you can actually latch onto either millimeter wave beams and therefore actually have a much better experience compared to what you had before. Even previously, we thought it was pretty good till we saw the further improvements that we can bring in using AI techniques. We’ve already started that journey and as we look forward when we talk of 5G advanced laying the foundation for AI-based techniques into cellular, it goes one step further and says, well, in addition to what every device and network will probably do just by proprietary implementations, are there protocols that we need to develop so that the devices and the networks exchange information with each other and are able to train and do the inference of all of these AI models that are emerging?

It’s a fascinating field as you can imagine from Qualcomm’s standpoint. We’re extremely active in this space in standards and in our research domain, so stay tuned on that front. When it comes to edge computing, there is one, just to mention the part on the network side, there is a separate trend line on the networks, which is about increasing the virtualization of the radio access network. Virtualization of RAN by running software on third-party hardware allows you to run multiple workloads at the edge of the network. Today, at the edge of the network, what we would call as a base station, but typically it would be a DU, distributed unit where the base processing is being done, if you take a hard look inside the server where the processing is done, one can easily say, “Well, maybe that same edge, the server that’s there should be in a position to run both the RAN workloads and AI work.” You have edge computing workloads running concurrently, and that brings in a different dimension for mobile operators who can now start thinking of providing additional services beyond data services to consumers. It’s a truly fascinating field in that sense.

Ron Westfall: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a great perspective you provided Durga. I think that it’s tying together what about the other key technology trends and how that can definitely improve 5G capabilities? Not just from the standards which are always important, but also in terms of driving that innovation that we touched on. And certainly I believe on device AI is going to be integral to that and certainly in terms of enabling distributed workloads that allow AI to actually develop in a way that is ethical, in a way that is going to actually meet immediate demands for the enterprises and the consumers out there. On that high note, thank you so much Durga for coming on and sharing your insights and thoughts, always most valuable. Also ensuring that we know what Qualcomm’s perspective is on the top most developments in terms of what’s going on in the 5G ecosystem including 5G advanced, 5G standalone, and again, those key technology trends of AI, machine learning, and edge computing. With that, everyone, thank you for joining us today and have a great 5G day. Thank you so much, and thank you Durga.

Other insights from The Futurum Group:

Qualcomm Supplying Apple With Snapdragon 5G Modem-RF Systems Into 2026

IAA Mobility 2023: Qualcomm and JLR Transform In-Vehicle XP with 5G

5G Factor: Can 5G and Cloud Gaming Join Hands?

Author Information

Ron is an experienced, customer-focused research expert and analyst, with over 20 years of experience in the digital and IT transformation markets, working with businesses to drive consistent revenue and sales growth.

He is a recognized authority at tracking the evolution of and identifying the key disruptive trends within the service enablement ecosystem, including a wide range of topics across software and services, infrastructure, 5G communications, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), analytics, security, cloud computing, revenue management, and regulatory issues.

Prior to his work with The Futurum Group, Ron worked with GlobalData Technology creating syndicated and custom research across a wide variety of technical fields. His work with Current Analysis focused on the broadband and service provider infrastructure markets.

Ron holds a Master of Arts in Public Policy from University of Nevada — Las Vegas and a Bachelor of Arts in political science/government from William and Mary.


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