Qualcomm’s John Smee on 5G R&D: ‘If you build it, they will come’

Dr. John Smee, Qualcomm’s VP of engineering, says that one of the things that differentiates Qualcomm from other tech companies is its “if you build it, they will come” research mentality: Trying to envision and build technologies that will support what future applications could come into being, and try to bring those applications to life in a holistic way through advanced prototyping on its research side: In smart factories, automotive applications for cellular, millimeter-wave systems, 5G and augmented/virtual reality.

The company seeks to set up an end-to-end system for tests, and bring applications on top of that, Smee said. “That enables us to figure out where are the bottlenecks, where do we further have to improve, either in the standard or in our implementation; and who else do we have to partner with in the ecosystem to help bring these technologies so that they end up in consumers’ hands or end up enabling new industries to adopt 5G?” he added.

Fundamentally, Smee says, part of the reason that cellular networks continue to be deployed and garner billions in investment in upgrades is that there are continual improvements in coverage, latency and capacity, the last of which is coming into particularly sharp focus in 5G.

“Say you’re trying to provide capacity to some AGVs, some ground robots in a factory,” he offers. “We literally built our own 5G smart factory, and then we start loading it up with more devices, and we start seeing, what is the overall effect on the experience of one device in the presence of multiple other devices? … What fraction of capacity can the system dedicate to that one link, in the presence of these other links?”

Qualcomm’s smart factory environment is set up at its corporate campus in San Diego. Smee describes a large warehouse building with a footprint has been expanded over time for its 5G research, where Qualcomm has a series of robots, an industrial conveyor belt equipped with various devices and a series of robots with capabilities that include being able to detect and move items on the line. It’s both a prototyping space and one for customer engagement directly with other companies and industries who have expertise in that environment and are interested in how 5G, AI, time-sensitive networking and other technologies can be used. The chip company also has its own vehicles on the roads, he says, showcasing sidelink communications with roadside units and other vehicles as well as cellular-network connectivity.

Qualcomm has installed a live 5G network site inside its San Diego headquarters as well, both to showcase the newest cellular technology for visitors and use it for deeper insights into millimeter-wave propagation indoors. The company has shared detailed testing results from that environment with the rest of the industry, along with other data that it has gleaned from outdoor mobility testing that informs network deployments. It continues to weigh both the present and the future, in terms of optimizing 5G, engaging in the current standards work – and looking beyond it.

The wireless industry can’t ignore or develop 5G in isolation from cloud computing, from smart transportation or industrial IoT or the myriad verticals that it wants to serve with 5G, Smee ways. “We work closely with [these ecosytems]because it helps pull us forward.” Because Qualcomm’s research and testing work happens well ahead of the standard and ahead of its own product roadmap, it has to have intimate knowledge of where the technology stands, how it might be improved upon and what applications might benefit from such improvements. After all, technology has to make business sense in the real world in order to be deployed.

“We have to work with those industries and bring them into our network,” Smee says. “That’s an interesting conundrum, that we’re trying to improve the foundation of mobile, but we’re also trying to improve the applicability of mobile to many of these new industries. So we kind of have that inherent dual-prong approach to our research test beds as well.

“The value we’re trying to bring, it’s not like one company can do itself any more,” Smee said, adding: “The industry is larger now, and we have a responsibility to get it right. That starts with early prototype investigations, and it also starts with opening our own eyes to more and more other companies, other industries, [and]the global landscape of some of these technology scenarios.”

Looking for more insights on how telecom and tech companies are leveraging 5G, MEC and virtualization in their own businesses? Check out RCR Wireless News’ editorial report and our accompanying webinar featuring Dell Technologies, Ericsson and Rogers.

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