5G Networks Move Up a Gear

Qualcomm reveals road map to future 5G networks at MWC 2021

To say that MWC has been different this year would be an understatement. The event, which normally takes place about four months earlier in the year, has proceeded in-person — as well as virtually — despite many people, including some major companies, choosing not to travel to Barcelona. It’s led to a radically altered experience, and instead of providing the usual avalanche of device launches, the show has arguably turned its focus to supporting technologies such as networks to a greater extent than ever before.

One company that took advantage of this change was Qualcomm, with its Future of the Network keynote presentation proving well-tailored to the event. It has assumed a clear leadership role in 5G over the past few years, thanks to its long-term strategic investments in the technology. This provided a stage for incoming CEO Cristiano Amon to set out his vision for the company, and for 5G technology, in connecting people and organizations in a post-pandemic world.

On the topic of transition, it’s worth pointing out that this is Mr Amon’s first MWC since becoming CEO-elect at Qualcomm. Over the past few years, Mr Amon has been an ambassador for the company’s vision for 5G and a driving force behind the growing ecosystem. In his address, he highlighted continued progress on this front: there are now more than 165 operators offering 5G services and a further 270 working to deploy the technology, and Qualcomm’s 5G solutions have generated nearly 1,000 design wins.

Impressive as this is, the company’s Future of the Network view arguably provided the most significant talking points. Mr Amon’s central aim is to continuously connect everything and everyone to the cloud over 5G networks, and to provide the building blocks for the digital transformation of industries. This renewed strategic focus was evident throughout the presentation.

For example, his keynote made clear that Qualcomm is working to deliver a milimetre-wave variant of 5G on a wider scale, in addition to the sub-6 GHz deployments that have been more common so far. Although both are important for widespread coverage, millimetre-wave 5G delivers greater capacity and low latency alongside faster speeds. The technology has been deployed by all carriers in the US and Japan, but roll-out in other regions — for example, Australia, China and Europe — has been sluggish. CCS Insight has long believed in the economic and performance arguments for networks built on millimetre-wave spectrum, and Qualcomm’s investments are now clearly influencing operator decisions in Asia and Europe. We fully expect commitment from operators to ramp up in 2022.

Another noteworthy aspect of this strategy is the emphasis on deploying 5G in new locations and scenarios. Consumer mobile devices have played the leading role in much of the 5G narrative so far, but Mr Amon stressed that the company is increasingly committed to rolling the technology out to public networks, enterprises, industries and to the home. The focus is on virtualized networks, which are more flexible and scalable than anything that has come before, echoing a clear trend at MWC 2021. It’s early days for virtualized radio access network (RAN) and Open RAN, but there’s a lot of work going on in these areas and the market is opening to a host of newcomers.

At the event, this focus crystallized into reality with Qualcomm’s 5G RAN Platform for Small Cells (FSM). The new FSM 200 series is designed to support wider capacity and faster data speeds, along with full compatibility with virtualized RAN architectures and support for global spectrum. This will enable enhanced 5G connectivity in locations such as factories, airports and hospitals, where it’s vital that intelligent networks support multiple users.

Private 5G networks can also offer additional value in some of these settings, potentially deterring would-be hackers and providing a more predictable and robust environment for applications at the network edge. We see these changes accelerating in several markets. The focus on building capability at the edge of networks, and in areas including automotive and the Internet of things, is clearing the way to a new area of growth, especially in markets such as Europe, where private 5G networks are becoming popular in fields like technical design and manufacturing.

So, there’s a broad set of announcements to digest, but what do they tell us? I believe Qualcomm’s approach at MWC 2021 shows a change in tone, which is to be expected as the company’s new leader lays out his vision. Its focus on the increasingly flexible and virtualized networks of the future may grab fewer headlines than projections of millions of 5G handset shipments, but it may well be more important. Rather than talking about what 5G will enable — faster networks, more capacity and low latency — the conversation is turning to how the technology will allow transitions in networks and devices, leading to better user experiences for a wide range of applications.

It’s a notable shift for Qualcomm as it seeks to cement its role at the heart of the 5G revolution. As the world moves beyond Covid-19 and the 5G transition shifts into its next gear, these new announcements look set to keep the firm at centre stage.