On this week’s episode of Industry Focus: Wildcard, host Jason Moser chats with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) principal engineer Rajat Prakash about Qualcomm’s investments in 5G, the areas he’s most excited about in the space today, and much more!
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This video was recorded on June 23, 2021.
Jason Moser: It’s Wednesday, June 23rd, I’m your host Jason Moser and on this week’s Wildcard Wednesday show we’re talking 5G with a special guest. Rajat Prakash is the principal engineer with the Wireless Research and Development Group at Qualcomm, where his current work focuses on 5G enabled industrial IOT and virtualized radio access network technologies. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Rajat about Qualcomm’s investments in 5G, the areas he’s most excited about in this space today and much more. We hope you enjoy our conversation.[…]
Rajat, if you could, first and foremost, just give us a little background on what led you to Qualcomm. You’ve been in Qualcomm for quite some time. Give us a little bit about your background. What led you to Qualcomm, and what have you been working on recently there?
Rajat Prakash: Thank you, Jason. I did my PhD in Communications Engineering in the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign. At that time, and even to this day, Qualcomm is the leading company in that area. I joined the research department in Qualcomm for wireless research. Coming out of grad school with my research background in wireless engineering, that was a very good fit. When I got here, I worked on a bunch of projects when I started at Qualcomm, starting with OFDMA, which was the new emerging technology in the early 2000s. I worked on OFDMA, then going on to LTE, going on to small cells, and then finally ending up in 5G. Especially in 5G, I look at some of the emerging applications of 5G outside of your typical smartphone application, including some of the things I’d like to talk with you today about, including verticals, industrial applications, logistics, and so on.
Moser: That’s great. I’m glad you said 5G, because that’s really what we’re here to talk about today. It’s just such a fascinating time, and I know that some folks really, they feel like 5G is here, it’s like flipping a switch, and we’ve been talking about how it’s really going to be a process. This is going to be something that rolls out over several years as we discover new capabilities. But what are some of the new capabilities of 5G that you are working on today, and what do they mean in practical terms? The types of things that we can maybe understand or see in our everyday activities?
Prakash: Sure. I’m looking at two specific areas within 5G, one of them is the application of 5G to the emerging vertical applications. These vertical applications include manufacturing, factory of the future, logistics, warehousing, and other applications which demand mission-critical services, low latency, high reliability, and so on. That’s a very exciting area. We have a lot of the interest from the users of 5G who are not your typical cellular technology users, but emerging verticals. That’s a pretty exciting area I worked in. Another exciting area I worked in is about how to evolve the network topology itself to go beyond your typical unified base station, and to evolve the network into a different type of topology, what is called RAN disaggregation, or open RAN. Those are the two areas I specialize in in my work at Qualcomm.
Moser: Of all of that, what’s the research that you find the most exciting? What is it that you’re really excited about these days?
Prakash: The research I find the most exciting is to really take 5G to the level where some of these vertical applications users, in particular the manufacturing industry, who have very demanding requirements, to do research to satisfy their demanding requirements, the most demanding one being reliability or availability. The demanding requirement we’re talking about here is talked about in terms of five-nines or six-nines of availability. This is something quite new for the cellular industry and for 5G. In 4G, nobody really talked about those kinds of demanding requirements. From a research perspective, the kind of technologies we can apply to meet that level of reliability is a pretty exciting area of research. In fact, it’s pretty good to see that today is moving from research into practice. There are technology trials, there are pre-commercial activities in that space. That has been a pretty exciting journey for me as part of this 5G research.
Moser: I’m glad you brought that up, the reliability, I think, the connectivity, the reliability, the pervasive network, where it’s everywhere. We’re still working to get there. Qualcomm is going to be an important piece of that puzzle, I feel like, in expanding that connectivity to more people, more homes. What are some of the things that you all there at Qualcomm are doing in order to help address and expand connectivity to be able to get that wide-reaching pervasive network that we really need to see for 5G to be able to take full home?
Prakash: To get connectivity everywhere you need a bunch of technologies to come together. If you look at millimeter waves specifically, we’re getting millimeter wave connectivity to be universally applicable to all places in the operator’s coverage area that has typically been challenging. One of the technologies we’ve all gone for millimeter wave connectivity specifically is repeaters and relays. You don’t need to install a base station close to every customer. You can install a base station and then have a repeater or a relay, which propagates that signal further to where the customer is. This can apply whether the customer is a smartphone customer or a fixed wireless customer, which is a very important emerging application these days because of the restrictions and so on.
Fixed wireless access for residences and also millimeter wave access in general via repeaters and relays is one important area of technology to get connectivity everywhere. Another important way to get connectivity everywhere is to have more of the massive MIMO technology. If you have one base station, typically it has four antennas, eight antennas, it would be able to serve a limited number of users in a given slot. But with a massive MIMO with one base station with 64 antennas to 56 antennas, and with the higher bands those antennas don’t have to be that big either, you would be able to serve a lot more users in the same slot. That also helps get connectivity to more people who need it. These are two technologies, the repeaters massive MIMO millimeter wave in general, which are relatively mature. The research is pretty mature and deployments are already happening. People are already seeing the benefits. If you look at some areas which are still more in the research phase, deployments will happen in the next two years or three years. Satellite is an interesting area, 3GPP is developing the standard toward satellite. When you talk about connectivity really at a global and universal level, satellite is one of the building blocks to get there. That’s something customers should start seeing the benefit of down the line.
Moser: Yeah. Let’s still talk about satellite for a minute because I’ve had some questions before regarding satellite because we’ve seen companies like Amazon and SpaceX, and even some rumors that Apple might even be looking into possible satellite opportunities there, in the satellite. Is that a market opportunity? Do you feel like it could be something meaningful for companies like Qualcomm?
Prakash: Yeah, definitely the opportunity is big. The reason I say that is that when the opportunity happens via 5G as a standardized solution, it really is designed to work in a smartphone which a typical customer is using. As opposed to some of the previous users of satellite, which are maybe for fixed equipment or ground stations, they are not really designed to scale as a standardized 5G solution could potentially scale. I think that’s really the opportunity which comes to us with the 5G standardized solution where it could be part of smartphones and a lot more people could benefit from it.
Moser: When you were talking about the millimeter wave, understanding that that really is for dense areas where you’re connecting very short distances. That sounds like that’s really that small cell technology, is that right?
Prakash: Yeah. I think it’s a little bit of macro terminology. For millimeter waves, the coverage area of the cell is small. But most people don’t like to call it a small cell, just in terms of nomenclature.
Moser: Everybody wants bigger.
Prakash: I guess maybe one reason is offering you multiple gigabits of throughput and calling it a small cell might not be the best naming in that sense.
Moser: That’s understandable. Well, one of the other things I find fascinating with 5G, and it leaks its way into another service that I run here that focuses on immersive technology, augmented reality, virtual reality, extended reality, 5G being a key technology, really to helping immersive technology take that next leap, make that next step into the consumer’s everyday lives. But when we look at technologies like AR and VR, artificial intelligence, I think, is another one that a lot of folks are really interested in. How do 5G and something like artificial intelligence, for example, connect? How do those two technologies work together?
Prakash: There are two parts to how artificial intelligence and 5G connect. One part is the role of artificial intelligence in making 5G service better so whether you are watching video streaming or you are just web browsing. Artificial intelligence has a role to play in making the 5G service itself better. That shows up as network optimization tools or connectivity service improvement tools. Operators are able to collect a lot of data from their base stations, from the handsets, from the core network equipment and vendor operators. These are your typical operators who have been providing a service for many years. When they collect more data, they’re able to make their service better. For example, identification of coverage holes, adjusting the pointing and tilting of the base station antennas to reach the signal to the place where it’s needed. Let’s say inside our view of 5G, how artificial intelligence might improve 5G service. It’s a pretty big area in itself. I think the other part is artificial intelligence as applied to consumer facing applications whether it’s speech recognition, image recognition, or the role of artificial intelligence in virtual reality. In those applications, the lowering of latency and the increasing of throughput, which 5G brings, that really is very important. For example, you could think of some services which still a few years ago sounded futuristic. For example, you go to a restaurant in Italy and the guy’s speaking Italian, and can you have real time translation?
That’s something within reach right now. That’s where the 5G high throughput, low latency is able to connect you to some back end services which are in the Cloud. Artificial intelligence, I would say it becomes much more accessible to the customer once you are reaching those services via a 5G link, which has low latency and a high throughput. So yeah, it really brings it to scale and to the end user.
Moser: That’s fascinating. Given the nature of your job, I think you’d be very able to answer this next question. When we look at some companies and we look at the companies that are maybe young and developing and growing, and research and development is a big expense, and it’s understandable why companies had to invest in their research and development, and we think at some point they will be able to pull back on that R&D and realize a little bit more profitability along the way. With a company like Qualcomm though, it strikes me that you all have to just constantly spin that wheel of innovation, that research and development. I don’t know that it’s realistic to really feel like it will ever end. In your experience, how important is R&D to a company like Qualcomm because to me at least my understanding, it looks from the outside, that R&D really is the lifeblood of a company like Qualcomm?
Prakash: Yes. Definitely, that’s an accurate assessment. Inside Qualcomm, we’re really focused on R&D. In our external messaging, we try to highlight the R&D we do. If you look at the history of this industry, I guess the wireless service industry, R&D has been really the engine of this industry going back to CDMA2000, then 3G, then 4G and then 5G. R&D is really what drives all this especially within Qualcomm. The way we like to approach R&D is to look ahead, try to play with things in the lab, try to prove out things in our test networks and then mix that with some design simulations and having a full system view. I definitely think that there is a lot of runway left for R&D also. As we go into 5G, and 5G right now is entering its middle phase, the early phase is coming to an end and there is still a lot of R&D left to be done in making the true promise of 5G realized for consumers, whether the consumer is your let’s say consumer applications or that it’s the verticals, who are probably in the second phase of 5G. The verticals will be seeing a lot more benefits and R&D is the engine which will be driving all that.
Moser: Yeah. That makes sense. Based on what you’re talking about a little bit earlier, it sounds like you’ve done a lot of work in regard to 5G in the industry, in manufacturing, in the enterprise. That’s something we talk about a lot, particularly as this digital economy continues to grow. What do you feel like some of the biggest challenges or the biggest struggles with 5G in the enterprise are today?
Prakash: I think the biggest struggle is that it’s a new player, that people in the enterprise who will ultimately be using 5G, they are not accustomed to using cellular family of technologies. At least for their operations, their 5G is anticipated to play a role going forward. There’s a gap in terms of us on the 5G technology side explaining to the customer what 5G can do. That’s a process. I think it has gotten off to a very good start. There are various organizations coming up. For example, 5G-ACIA is an organization trying to connect the 5G ecosystem with the manufacturing ecosystem. There’s a lot of connecting people, speaking the right language, understanding the use case, and trying to really fit the technology and then achieve scale within those industries. That’s the process which has started. I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge in terms of just reaching all the people in those verticals. There are also technology challenges but those I think we have a good handle on, at least. Maybe once we reach hundreds and thousands of deployments in the manufacturing sector, we might discover we missed something. But at least I’m confident that we have the basic solution ready.
Moser: Yeah. I think all of that R&D continues to pay off. One theme to 5G, I think a lot of folks, when they hear 5G, they probably think of something like a Verizon or an AT&T because of the commercials they see on TV, are all telling you, hey, 5G is available now, you can get it on your phone. That’s the extent I think a lot of folks think of when they think of 5G. But also there’s a big opportunity in private 5G networks, particularly industrial enterprise. I’m sure that you’ve at least thought about that or discussed that with your colleagues there. But is that an area where Qualcomm is participating or are you part of that private 5G network opportunity?
Prakash: The private 5G network opportunity is, I guess, essential for that to be realized to get the true benefits of some of the capabilities of 5G, so if I were to really enable new managers cases and manufacturing, it pretty much has to be via a private network part. The way Qualcomm I think participates in that is, if there is a private network, of course, people need the handsets modems, which is something we do. Whether it’s some modem which goes into your base station, whether it’s a modem which goes into your terminal. Whether it’s a low energy processor for robotics. Qualcomm is part of that opportunity in many ways. We do encourage private networks to reach scale. I think right now, looking at different continents, what’s going on and how regulators are reacting to private networks, how the verticals are addressing the opportunity, we’re pretty optimistic that this private network opportunity will get realized.
Moser: It sounds like it. Because I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but there is one final question I wanted to ask because I think it started out as a little bit of a job when we first started talking about investing in 5G, because we’ve got a 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G. People think we’re kidding when we say that 6G is actually happening. But the reality is that 6G is a thing, 6G is being worked on. I have to believe it really is just in its infancy, but is there anything that you can share with us in regard to 6G, I mean, is that a real thing? If so, are you at Qualcomm working on it?
Prakash: Yeah, definitely. The research side we are working on is 6G. Some industry organizations are getting farmed, including participation from the government, participation from universities. There are probably a lot of problems around our different ideas. One of the teams emerging in 6G is the convergence of physical and digital worlds where you are not just getting communication, but somehow the services are more closely tied to what’s around you, so it is more aware of your surroundings. That’s a team most of the participating players in 6G talk about. Yes, a very exciting future ahead as 5G evolves into 6G.
Moser: Now, I can’t wait to see what the future holds. It just seems like it changes so quickly. But Rajat Prakash, Principal Engineer with Wireless R&D Group of Qualcomm, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and share your expertise.
Prakash: Thank you very much.
Moser: And that’s going to do it for us this week, folks. Remember, you can always reach out to us on Twitter @MFIndustryFocus, or drop us an email at [email protected]. As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don’t buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Thanks, as always, to Tim Sparks for putting the show together for us. I’m Jason Moser, thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.
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