Author(s): Geoff Blaber
It won't have escaped anyone's attention in the mobile industry that Qualcomm has suffered a challenging 12 months. The company has been buffeted by investor activists calling for a break-up, suffered licensing problems in China and growing pressure from regulators, lost valuable places in some Samsung phones and seen the high end of the mobile market continue to gravitate toward Apple and so limit sales opportunities for Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipsets.
Against these strong headwinds, the Qualcomm 3G/LTE Summit held recently in Hong Kong steered toward more-positive aspects of its business and its new flagship silicon, the Snapdragon 820, in particular (see Qualcomm Bets on SnapDragon 820 as a Platform for Growth). Yet as impressive as the collective features of the new chipset are, there's one area that partners and competitors should truly focus on: connectivity.
The Snapdragon X12 LTE modem is essentially an upgrade to the 9x45 LTE category 10 modem announced in November 2014. The product comes with a number of industry firsts, including the first publicly announced modem to support LTE category 12 in the downlink and LTE category 13 in the uplink. This means peak download speeds can reach a theoretical 600 Mbps using 3 x 20 MHz carrier aggregation and 256-QAM signal modulation technology; upload speeds can hit 150 Mbps using 2 x 20 MHz carrier aggregation and 64-QAM. The modem is also the first to support 4 x 4 multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) antenna configuration, which vastly improves download speeds on a single carrier by using multiple antennas, a feature already supported by networks like Sprint and Verizon Wireless.
Although it's true that operators are generally some way behind silicon providers when it comes to implementing LTE categories 12 and 13 and carrier aggregation, support for LTE-Advanced is gaining momentum. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association in a report published in July 2015, over 422 operators have commercially launched LTE in 143 countries. Of these, over 30% are investing in LTE-Advanced with 20% (88 networks in total) having launched services in 45 countries. Carrier aggregation is generally the first priority and 73 networks already support the LTE category 6 standard. Telstra announced support for LTE category 11 using 3 x 20 MHz carrier aggregation with 256-QAM in September 2015. The operator is using a Netgear mobile hot spot featuring a discrete X12 modem.
Leading Asian and US operators have been quickest out of the blocks to deploy LTE-Advanced although European players have also recently begun to deploy the technology. French operator Bouygues is rolling out a tri-band carrier aggregation solution — using kit from Qualcomm and Ericsson — and EE recently announced plans to extend its "4G+" service across London to meet increasing demand. China Mobile announced a trial of LTE category 9 equipment in partnership with Qualcomm and ZTE, and China Telecom is also using tri-band carrier aggregation to unite its various spectrum assets following the FDD license it secured in February 2015.
These are encouraging advances in the adoption of new technology. Although the speeds cited are theoretical today, Qualcomm is driving innovation in chipsets in conjunction with network infrastructure partners to deliver tangible benefits in 2016.
Additionally, not all the features of the X12 LTE modem are dependent on continued operator investment in LTE-Advanced. The inclusion of tri-band Wi-Fi (using 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 60 GHz), 802.11ac with multi-user MIMO, and support for the 802.11ad standard should also ensure that users gain a superior Wi-Fi experience.
This integration of LTE and Wi-Fi is another first for the chip, and is indicative of Qualcomm's vision for 5G communications. LTE and Wi-Fi link aggregation allows carriers to maximize Wi-Fi infrastructure and deliver a seamless user experience between both technologies. Similarly, LTE in unlicensed spectrum is supported for the first time in the X12 LTE modem. This technology is set to catalyze investment by operators lacking Wi-Fi infrastructure seeking to offload traffic using unlicensed spectrum. These two technologies are advantages borne of Qualcomm's assets in both camps and will be central to the company's long-term competitiveness in 5G in terms of chipsets and intellectual property licensing.
The Snapdragon X12 LTE modem underlines Qualcomm's primary advantage. It is undeniable that the company faces mounting competitive pressure. However, it continues to lead the way in connectivity in particular — an area characterized by complexity, daunting investments in research and development, and mass consolidation. Qualcomm's strength in such an environment is a product of the intentionally symbiotic relationship between chipsets and licensing. Investors should consider this position carefully before demanding any split in the company's structure.