5G in 2019: Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon talks 5G expansion and what it brings to the table
Last month, Qualcomm held their annual Snapdragon Tech Summit to unveil their latest products: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 mobile platform for smartphones and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx for PCs. Qualcomm also dedicated a full day at the event to talk about the state of 5G connectivity in the industry. Representatives from U.S. carriers Verizon and AT&T were present to discuss their 2019 roadmaps for the expansion of 5G, and we even got a limited (and flawed) demonstration of 5G at the venue. We’ve heard Qualcomm and their partners talk about 5G for over 2 years now, but we’re finally going to see the technology deployed this year. Later this year, we’ll have a handful of 5G-capable flagship Android smartphones connecting to 5G networks in parts of Europe, America, China, and Korea. As carriers prepare their networks for the new technology, consumers are left wondering how 5G will improve their lives. At the Snapdragon Tech Summit, we talked to Qualcomm’s President Cristiano Amon about the expansion of 5G in 2019 and the new use cases that 5G opens up, especially in regards to edge computing.
Mishaal Rahman: “We’re both intimately familiar with the poor experience that we had when transitioning to 4G with the first 4G mobile phones just not giving us the kind of battery life that we’d expect. So, I’m wondering how exactly you guys have tackled the issues with thermal performance and battery life, and how you guys have optimized those using the technologies in the modem.”
Cristiano Amon: “I’ll answer the question by first saying that when we compare the 4G transition with the 5G transition, the complexity of 5G is very high. All of those challenges across power consumption, terminal size, exist. But there’s a difference: The smartphone maturity is very high, so the bar is higher than it was with 4G. At the time, some of the 4G devices at launch were not very mature—a lot of the application use cases were still not there. Today, you can do everything on your smartphone you couldn’t do back then. Just beyond multimedia and games, you have mobile banking—pretty much everything you do on your computer you can do on your phone. Productivity is high on the phone, so those things are now there. A lot of people had BlackBerries at the time, and now what we have is a much higher bar. The expectation is, if you don’t get a phone that does everything your 4G phone does today plus some more, why would you upgrade? So that’s why you see, in contrast to what happened with 4G, a lot more proof points of this technology.
Just look at this year alone, if you look at all the different proof points we’ve been demonstrating and the progress—we announced X50 back in 2016—and what I showed at the keynote, the number of milestones, because I think the expectations on what is the maturity of the technology is very high. And I think you probably heard from Samsung: If it doesn’t have the quality that their customers would expect, why would you want to buy the phone? So, I think you still have those challenges. I think it’s a Qualcomm-size problem, because in addition to the fact that you have a new technology, you have to reclaim space in the board. We have millimeter wave, it’s not one antenna—they’re like an antenna array because of beam forming that you have to do and fast antenna switching—you have more bands. So you have a lot of things taking board space; you have a lot more radios in the phone to manage coexistence interference. You have more demanding processors on machine learning and graphics. So great problem for a company like Qualcomm, which is a system-level company, to solve, because the customers will be unforgiving. I gave you a lot of details, but I think the answer to the question is every technology will come with challenges. But the market is mature and will decide, you will not buy that device if it’s not the same that you have and some more, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Mario Serrafero: “So that’s where the reputation for performance-per-area you guys have that allows you to incorporate the complexity of the antenna into the modem with minimal die space.”
Cristiano Amon: “And unless you design those things as a system, you won’t be able to get the performance. I’ll give a great example. That’s why I said during the keynote, the vision of ideas and one of the reasons why we got into the RF front-end space is because you have to design things as a system. Think about it as you hold your phone in different hand positions, you have to quickly switch the signal from different antennas, sometimes you’re going to go through the phone into an area that a certain spectrum is used for 5G like in the China case or the Sprint case where they’re deploying the 2.6 band. And then you go to a different area, that same exact spectrum is now used for 4G with a much narrower channel, you have to do the switching. That’s why we got into the tunable front-end space, now we do the models integrated into the transceiver and how you can actually design the whole thing as a system. So you can actually have the performance without sacrificing battery life and the board space.”
Mario Serrafero: “One of the challenges of hitting these milestone technologies is that you have to communicate to the audiences, and the users, ultimately. What is the fundamental shift? Why is 5G fundamentally different than 4G? What new experiences does it allow for that 4G just cannot? Why is it that the improvements in latency and throughput enable these new experiences? How does Qualcomm strategize around tackling those consumer perception issues and how does that also factor in with the partners like carriers and OEMs?”
Cristiano Amon: “Why don’t we do this: let’s go over time. There’s some things we know, somethings we don’t know. How do we start and go into this journey to the future? So here’s the premise: Let’s assume that when 5G launches, when you are in 4G mode, you can do the same thing you do with a 4G phone right now. It’s a multi-mode device, and let’s assume that the battery life is there and all those things so you feel compelled to upgrade. So at that point, and within coverage, there are a few things that are going to be easy to see just based on the fact that the technology gives you so much more bandwidth and lower latency. One thing that will be easy to see is the fact that today you just stream music when you want to listen to music versus downloading it; you’ll be able to do that with 4K video so video is going to be very ubiquitous. It’s going to be as easy to do, and as fast to do, as with music today. Also, you’re going to be able to have a whole different experience when you upload things to the cloud. So, take a high quality picture and it instantly goes to the cloud. You’re going to have less choices as a user about what do you store locally, whether or not to put it in the cloud. It’s just going to be a full convergence between the cloud and your device with 5G. So that’s the first thing you’re going to see: Whatever you do becomes much faster and becomes much better.
And some new services—some I should say different—that you do today, like you did music before, are going to become more ubiquitous. Video is going to be a great example, which is that people are going to be streaming videos as easily as Spotify is for music. But then we keep going down our future lane, and if you have the high bandwidth and the low latency, then the next thing you can do is you can start building processing at the edge. So you get something like today, like the Fortnite phenomena; Fortnite has been a great thing to happen for us. For the first time, we now have mobile in the mainstream gaming industry—it is not casual gaming anymore. We’ve got casual mobile gaming, and then we got console and PC gaming, but now it’s everything. It’s cross-platform for Fortnite. Fortnite is the best thing to happen for mobile gaming and for developers since there’s a lot more mobile users. So now you have your 5G device and you have a mature network. Now, with computing at the edge, you want to play a game that requires more processing capabilities than your smartphone—that’s your gaming co-processor right there. 5G is at length, so all of a sudden, you’ll be able to play console games on demand without having to carry all of the silicon in your phone.
Then we keep going down the future lane as the processing evolves at the edge, all of a sudden, you could have some use cases that also take advantage of both the processing and low latency. I like to refer to the Netflix series Black Mirror. If you walk around using the Oculus Go, humans will like that for certain applications, but we’re not going to walk around with that. But humans will not reject this. I think Qualcomm has shown how we could show you 5G in a device like this when it has the 5G radios, as you have some rendering capabilities. But then you rely on 5G to do the split rendering on the cloud like the game example I gave you. Then, when the coverage is there and the latency is there—and the latency is key for you to do things in the cloud and come back to you—I will be able to get into this room and look at you, Mario, before Catherine tells us “this is the guy that said bad things about [the] 810,” you know. I will go to your LinkedIn and see, “are we connected in any way?” and then I say that “have you met this person before?” because I read it as it’s registering in the cloud. Those types of use cases, they’re not that futuristic. What the technology enables is actually building the coverage and building its processing.
In summary, we don’t know what all the use cases are, but we can see if you give high bandwidth and low latency you could change a lot in a world where we’re already cloud connected by just bringing the cloud closer to you. One prediction that I probably talked through in the keynote is, it’ll be changing how you think about your phone. You have your phone and then you have the OS and then you have the apps in the cloud, those things are going to get blurred. You do that today, not knowing you already to do that. As an example, when people take pictures from within WhatsApp or within Instagram, they’re not using the camera app—they’re using the camera within the app. They’re using the camera on iOS and the camera on Android, but just think about that with 5G connectivity: each and every app could rely on machine learning and get the response back after doing the computation. 5G is going to blur those lines and change a lot of the experience by bringing the cloud closer to you.”
Mario Serrafero: “One thing that stood out to me, there’s obviously a longer-term vision of moving away from the device, or at least decentralizing some of the tasks and putting them on some cloud processor somewhere and then streaming back and forth the input and the output. That seems counter to some of the trends that we’ve seen now of putting computing on the edge with regards to AI. Do you see that as complementary, with techniques like split rendering?”
Cristiano Amon: “Completely complementary. I think one of the common mistakes is to think that the word moved computing is here or there—it’s about computing involved. I’ll give an example outside of split rendering, but maybe easier to understand. So you have a phone and you’re doing certain things with your phone. Each and every one of us is doing a lot of productivity in our phones. I guarantee you this year you did more productivity in your phone than you did last year. Now, for certain productivity, you just go to your PC, which is a different type of processing and computing experience right now—that’s why you’re going to see more announcements from us this week as we move into the PC space. And then somebody else in the office will have a workstation, because it’s not enough—you need something else. It’s like that game example, you’re going to have a lot of computing, and this will continue to evolve. A lot of computing at the edge will continue to evolve.
At the same time, you’ll be able to add use cases as you access more computing resources on demand, and that’s something we didn’t have before. That’s something that 5G will also enable because of the mission critical capabilities of lower latency in addition to just more bandwidth. You’re going to have this convergence of type of devices, because now you have the ability to access computing on demand, and you’re going to see that as you start to build more and more computing at the edge. An example of what computing can move to the edge is a camera. So a camera for surveillance is not a phone—it’s an Internet of Things device like the thing we had announced with Microsoft Azure and other companies. You have a smart camera. The camera needs to have computing because the camera, in addition to being connected and taking the image, is making analysis like a security camera. It’s going to say, “who is this person?” to the facial recognition algorithm. “Is this person supposed to be here right now?” Is there an event or not an event? You start to make a lot of possible decisions. At the same time, with split rendering, you could have cameras connected to more computing leading into another use case. So I think that’s the future, and it’s much more about bringing computing to the edge and making use of that capability on demand by mobile devices. And then we should think about the potential; it’s enormous to think of the IoT devices that could benefit from that, but we’re going to start with phones.”
Mishaal Rahman: “I do see a lot of the benefits in just providing the opportunity for these new use cases to emerge. I’ve been thinking about what is possible, but I’m also wondering about how long we should expect [to wait for] these kinds of features to come about. A lot of the partners on stage announced their intentions for early 2019. But, they’re leaving out that only at the very center of the largest populated cities they’re going to employ the millimeter wave networks with the highest throughput and lowest latency and surrounding it, the sub-6GHz network, and then 4G expanded networks. So I’m wondering, when do you expect us to fully transition to primarily 5G networks?”
Cristiano Amon: “The best way for me to answer that question is to divide it up into phones and non-phones. When you transition to a 5G smartphone you’re going to have a lot of the technology launches in 2019. I think you’ve heard about some of the market starters and their flagships coming in. By 2020, that becomes significant in volume. So when we think about going from 19 launches like in the projection, you’re going to have so many launches in the first half. I’ll say if you look at a market like the United States, most likely when you get to exactly this time next year, you will see every Android flagship device is going to be 5G capable and will also work very well on 4G. But by 2020, we expect to see that become significant in volume, because the coverage is going to be more mature.
Now, here’s the second part of your answer, which for me is what makes different, so the glass is ‘half full’ on how fast it happens. One of the most unique things about 5G is the fact that it’s going to other industries and you have things like private networks. So millimeter wave, because networks are more dense, allows not only the operators that you saw on stage talking about building, but the CIOs too. And the CIOs say, “I’m going to build this in the enterprise. I’m going to build this into the industrial side. I’m going to build this in the manufacturing side,” by densifying the network. Let’s think about that: A CIO can go to a company, and because this will have some elements of Wi-Fi access point-type architecture, they’re putting millimeter wave that propagates well within that environment. Then once you put that in the enterprise the VCs get connected, your phone is 5G, your employer will say, “just go get the 5G phone.” You start to move the IT infrastructure to the cloud, and because you have this deployment called SA, which means you don’t rely on 4G but you have a standalone network that’s perfect for deployment. I hate to provide this example because it shows my age: but PBX and the early days of telephony. You would come in and say “I’m an enterprise, I would like to have my own phone company.” So you buy the PBX, you have your extensions and stuff. This is what’s going to happen: The network is in 5G because it’s going to industrial. Besides the operator, you’re going to have this build-your-own-network phenomena which densifies the network faster because of the CIO and they have this full convergence. This is likely to drive a transition faster than we’ve seen before.”
Mishaal Rahman: “You mentioned your expectations of, by December of next year we would expect every major flagship Android smartphone to support 5G. But the vast majority of people aren’t buying the flagship Android smartphones, they’re spending on the mid-range or the budget. We have a huge readership in India, where smartphones with Qualcomm chips are very popular, but mostly in the budget and mid-range segment. So we’re wondering when we would expect this technology to propagate to the low cost segment.”
Cristiano Amon: “By the same time that you see in 2020, when this becomes significant in volume, you should expect 5G going mainstream. And that’s not only because we want to get 5G to everyone. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s in our best interest to drive this 5G transition throughout the other tiers as well. But more importantly, we want to get 5G into other industries and other use cases and not necessarily just the phone. So in 2020 you’ll start to see this becoming more mainstream and no different than what you saw with 4G. And in the case of India is fascinating: mobile has been the first time people access the Internet. I think we want to do the same thing with 5G.”
Mishaal Rahman: “I know that today Verizon, they announced with their partner inSeego, their 5G NR hotspot that they’re releasing next year. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on that kind of product? Do you realistically expect 5G hotspots to replace home broadband in some areas?”
Cristiano Amon: “I’ll answer your question, but I would like to give you some context. I believe as a use case in a lot of the carriers’ business model, it is becoming stronger, especially some of the things we have done ourselves. In addition to using the 5G for broadband application because you have the speed and the latency, we also increased the viability of deploying special millimeter wave by combining our Wi-Fi mesh technology that you see us doing for full house coverage with our SON technology that basically dominated retail in the United States. Combine that with 5G, you can have whatever the environment is for broadband, whether the propagation is favorable for millimeter wave for example, or it isn’t, it doesn’t matter because if you get to the wall, you can go to a node of the mesh and then the mesh takes the broadband inside the home. And I think 5G will enable a lot of broadband cases. The economic equation is better if we go fiber to the head and up to the curb versus fiber to the home.
Having said that, the other context is there are certain things you couldn’t do before with wireless you can now, which is 5G plus the low latency, the reliability, the network slicing. You can guarantee the delivery of especially very time sensitive content. Great example of that is sports. Sports is unforgiving if you pay a bunch of money for some pay-per-view. If you buffer in the time of the scoring, you’re not going to be very happy. But now that you have that capability, you can deliver full broadband plus television content which is one of the key business models of the broadband companies right now—using 5G to the point that it actually eliminates broadcast. So you see more convergence of the Home Services using 5G and I think what Verizon is doing is just the beginning.”