Qualcomm and Ericsson have a long shared history with wireless standards. More than 15 years ago, they ended a bitter dispute over intellectual property rights for 3G technology, clearing the way for that standard to move forward. In recent years, even as the companies squabbled over the cost of licensing Qualcomm’s patents, they have worked together on 4G wireless standards and advanced forms of LTE.
Now, both companies have agreed to cooperate during the early stages of fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless technology. In addition to forming a better understanding of 5G requirements, they will develop early prototypes of modem chips and wireless equipment. These prototypes, which the companies plan to test with wireless carriers, will be used in Ericsson’s equipment and devices using Qualcomm parts.
5G technology was the major theme at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Most companies held trials of new wireless technologies that operate at gigabit speeds, connecting things like industrial sensors and semi-autonomous cars. Unsurprisingly, the red thread through the event was the Internet of Things (IoT), and the presence of automobile companies like Porsche and Ford underlined the idea that 5G could create new services by linking devices with each other.
That future, however, brings with it the problem of linking billions of new devices with reliable coverage, low latency, faster download speeds, and lower power consumption. However, new versions of the 4G LTE standard, like Cat-0 and Cat-M, are already being developed to balance these kinds of requirements.
Like most agreements forged between chipmakers and wireless companies around 5G, Qualcomm and Ericsson will focus on ensuring that their devices can work together effectively. “Now that the vision and interest in 5G are well established, it is time to focus on the technical and engineering work required to support operator trials and commercial network launches,” said Matthew Grob, vice president and chief technology officer of Qualcomm, in a statement.
The purpose of that work is to get Qualcomm and Ericsson more involved in the 5G standards process being led by the 3G Partnership Project, the organization that maintains today’s 4G LTE technology. Both companies are trying to finish prototypes by 2018, when the 3GPP expects to publish the first phase of the 5G standard. However, wireless carriers are not expected to have 5G networks until at least 2020.
At that point, many industries are expected to use the new high-speed technology to create new services—among them virtual and augmented reality, along with IoT devices. Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon envision a future in which they provide services rather than just maintain wireless networks. AT&T has said that in the next few years it will start competing more with technology companies like Google and Amazon, as it transfers most of its network into software. South Korea's SK Telecom has said that 5G wireless networks would serve as an “infrastructure” for new technologies.
Qualcomm's Grob hesitates at the idea that all these changes will happen in 2020. “I don’t want to be absolutely rigid about that 2020 date. That’s what we expect the standards process to produce, and we’re part of it,” Grob said in a presentation at the Hot Chips symposium last year.
He has said that similar to 4G technology, which has evolved to support carrier aggregation and other advanced features—5G will also have to make gradual progress. But at the same time, he envisions the first 5G standard as a huge step forward.
In the meantime, Qualcomm’s agreement with Ericsson is also focused on technologies that are much closer than full-blown 5G. They will work on advancing 4G with approaches like LTE in the unlicensed spectrum, Licensed Assisted Access, and LTE-Advanced, which is widely thought to have preliminary features of 5G.
At the same time, the two companies are also working on new antenna technologies that introduce many of 5G capabilities into today’s networks. Earlier this month, Qualcomm made an early step into that territory with its Snapdragon X16 LTE modem, which jumps over the gigabit threshold for cellular. The chip reaches download speeds of up to 1 Gbits/s while also supporting carrier aggregation.