Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Qualcomm - on The Future of Computing & Connected Experiences

Qualcomm CEO Dr. Paul E. Jacobs speaks on The Future of Computing
at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA
The ongoing revolution in computing paradigms, to a world which will be dominated by mobile devices, was clearly evident in a succession of Silicon Valley technical conferences last week. At the annual HotChips Conference on high-performance processors, in Cupertino August 27 - 29, the traditional world of computing was well represented by Intel, AMD, and IBM. Each company offered insights into their latest multicore CPU architectures for applications from PCs to the cloud, and data center chips to "big iron".

For Qualcomm, best-known as a provider of cell phone chip sets, to follow with a Telecom Council presentation on "The Future of Computing" the very next day, may have seemed out of place. However, the HotChips organizers also acknowledged the shift to mobile computing, by starting off their conference with a half-day tutorial on (The Evolution of) Mobile SoC Programming. The agenda included a session on SoCs, in which Intel presented their Medfield Smartphone application processor. The Tuesday evening keynote on "The Future of Wireless Networking", by Alcatel-Lucent CTO Marcus Weldon, turned out to be a perfect prelude for Qualcomm. In his HotChips presentation, Weldon spoke of the transition to a hyper-connected world, in which (he predicted) "the only devices will be smartphone, tablet, and TV". 

With this fortuitous setup, Qualcomm's claim to the computing crystal ball was not so audacious. The company's chip sets command a nearly 2/3 share of the cell phone market, according to some estimates. The Snapdragon application processor is currently leading in the smartphone segment, and Qualcomm has expanded their latest offering further, into more product tiers. With the "S4 Play" for entry level phones, "S4 Plus" for intermediate, the "S4 Pro" for high-end smartphones and tablets, and the Snapdragon "S4 Prime" for Smart TVs and Set-Top Boxes (STBs), Qualcomm has each of the devices on Weldon's list covered.

Qualcomm prominently featured Snapdragon at the Telecom Council event, held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View
, along with highlighting developments from other businesses within their new corporate structure. Following the announcements of Snapdragon-powered Windows RT tablets by Dell and Samsung at IFA Berlin earlier in the week, Qualcomm demonstrated the new Microsoft operating system, along with the gaming and 3D video capabilities on their tablet reference platform. 

The company is also developing technology for other forms of mobile devices, such as wireless electric vehicle charging systems, based on their November 2011 acquisition of HaloIPT. Erik Terjesen, Director of Technology Licensing at Qualcomm, described Halo as a technology that could be used in stationary charging stations, or embedded in roadways for charging vehicles on the move. Wireless healthcare devices based on Qualcomm's 2net platform were on display, while Qualcomm-Atheros demonstrated IEEE 802.11ac chip sets, along with their other WiFi-related technologies. Hy-Fi combines WiFi and Ethernet over power-line for wireless networking. Izat is Qualcomm's brand name for indoor location technology, which combines GPS with cellular location data, embedded sensors, and WiFi access point information. 

A link between the HotChips and Telecom Council events came in Qualcomm's discussions, at both venues, on the development of chips for small cell cellular network base stations. At HotChips, Qualcomm presented their 3G FSM9xxx Femtocell Station Modem (FSM), which they first began sampling in 2010.  The FSM9xxx combines a 1st-generation 1GHz Snapdragon processor core, with Qualcomm’s custom Hexagon DSP, a secure boot processor, and hardware accelerators, on a single SoC. Qualcomm showed a complete design for an up to eight-user residential femtocell, based on the FSM9208, which could be built on a 2.5" x 2.5", 6-layer printed circuit board, with total power dissipation of less than 5 watts.

During the panel discussion that concluded the Telecom Council meeting, Qualcomm-Atheros President Craig Barratt briefly discussed his company's recent acquisition of DesignArt Networks, developer of the DAN3000 series of 4G LTE small cell SoCs. Barratt said that DesignArt's wireless backhaul technology would be valuable to Qualcomm-Atheros, to help overcome that crucial obstacle to widespread small cell base station deployment. In a follow-up briefing, Nick Karter - Business Development Product Manager at Qualcomm, further outlined the company's small cell strategy. Karter is also Qualcomm's representative board member for the Small Cell Forum industry association. 

Qualcomm has been doing extensive work on interference management and Self-Organizing Networks (SON), which led to the company's development of UltraSON, as a means for ensuring that femtocells do not interfere with macrocells. In order to address the demands for higher wireless network data traffic, which Qualcomm has dubbed the  "1000x Data Challenge", both licensed and unlicensed spectrum must be used, said Karter.  Qualcomm's silicon strategy of SoC integration addresses much of the cost issue for small cells, but "you still have the issue of backhaul", he said. He sees the Qualcomm-Atheros product portfolio, which includes WiFi and optical networking, as a good combination with DesignArt's wireless technology.

According to Karter, DesignArt was very attractive for their "pioneering work" on both Line-of-Sight (LoS) and Non-Line-of-Sight (NLoS), low-latency wireless backhaul. While not specifying a particular range of frequencies that would be used, he said that DesignArt's technology allows their solutions to be adapted over a broad range of RF operating conditions.  In 2011, DesignArt had said that their backhaul solution would be demonstrated by a "very large" U.S. operator in Q3, and Karter added that an unnamed U.S. LTE operator had deployed the company's NLoS design.

Qualcomm's roadmap for the DesignArt acquisition is to add their modem design blocks into a next-generation multi-mode SoC, along with the Snapdragon processor core. Atheros WiFi will also be part of the solution, which Qualcomm had previously added to their FSM products for enterprise applications. As regards the potential use of WiFi for small cell backhaul, Karter said that Qualcomm's view is that WiFi will remain primarily an access technology.

For residential use cases, he said that operators expect users to switch their mobile devices over to WiFi for a broadband data connection, while femtocells continue to be used just to fill gaps in voice coverage. In Karter's view, operators will deploy outdoor metro small cells to fill 4G coverage gaps, and indoor use of femtocells will be limited to the enterprise. This scenario assumes that smartphone and tablet users have a faster wired broadband connection than 4G LTE can provide. Meanwhile, operators such as Verizon - with their HomeFusion service - are beginning to offer LTE as a replacement for fixed-line internet access, at least in rural areas. At Verizon's predicted 5 to 12 Mbps downlink and 2 to 5 Mbps uplink data rates, an LTE-based service often exceeds the available capabilities of DSL, even in urban areas.

The question remains as to whether wireless operators will invest in the necessary backhaul infrastructure, fiber or wireless, to handle the "1000X Data Challenge" in residential and mixed-use neighborhoods - where video consumption will be highest. These are also the areas where residents are most sensitive to unsightly cellular antennas. What happens when 4G operators transition to Voice over LTE (VoLTE)?

They might consider the remarks of Qualcomm's CEO - Dr. Paul E. Jacobs, who asked rhetorically in his "Future of Computing" presentation:
"What if existing femtocells were open?"

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