Note: Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag contributed significantly to this article.
5G is a new technology that everyone, including U.S. President Donald Trump, is talking about. So, naturally, everyone wants to talk about 5G and how they are leading in the space. However, the reality is that mobile 5G is a broadly encompassing wireless standard that changes the way that we think about cellular communications and broadens the possibilities like never. As such, it really takes a broad and deep understanding of 5G to really understand who’s leading in mobile 5G.
This will be part of a series that analyst Anshel Sag and I will be writing about that goes through the series of different parts of mobile 5G and who we believe the leaders are in all those different areas. These areas of 5G mobile leadership include:
- IP innovation and standards (this article)
- infrastructure equipment
- government policies and regulations
We believe that too much coverage of 5G leadership oversimplifies what comprises the entire 5G standard and how many different companies have different leadership positions. I also want to point out that 5G is more than mobile 5G and will benefit and create opportunities for the cloud, datacenter, and edge. We split the entire 5G opportunity in research here, entitled "The Full Impact Of 5G On IT Industry Hardware Spending."
For the first part of this series, the focus is on mobile 5G leadership in technology innovation and standards development.
For this, we must define what we consider a leadership position for mobile 5G and how we define that in terms of technology innovation and standards development. Many companies use different metrics to define success in this area, but ultimately the main metrics of success that we believe to be relevant to mobile 5G leadership are how many innovations get adopted into the 3GPP specification and ETSI’s IMT-2020 standard and whether these standards ultimately solve a problem that existed before its creation.
Number of contributions a flawed approach (quality, not quantity)
The industry works together to create these wireless standards and specifications which are made up of disclosed Standard Essential Patents (SEP) that are relevant to 5G for the ETSI standard. This process is continuing from the initial 3GPP Rel. 15 spec of 5G NR and is ongoing into the upcoming Rel. 16 version of the spec. Some firms are counting these SEPs and misguidedly using them as a metric for success in 5G. Not all these SEPs are necessarily created equally, with companies like Qualcomm’s SEPs having a higher quality and making up a bigger part of the core of the 5G spec than others. Patent counting or just filing patents for the sake of getting that number up has been a strategy employed by some vendors, like Huawei. The practice of patent counting has been employed before by Huawei Technologies in the Linux Foundation and appear to be repeating the same strategy to show perceived leadership with 3GPP. Patent and contribution counting is a flawed way to measure the degree of contribution and is covered here in a recent article in "IAM", recognized as a leading IP business media outlet.
Don't confuse "research" and "development"
Many in the 5G industry spend considerable amounts of money on R&D, but it is important to not confuse the difference between research and development and how few have real research. Everyone uses development to build products off the research that is done, but very few have deep research organizations that are breaking new ground and paving the way for the industry. This is a key metric for what kinds of companies are truly leading the industry in innovation and standards development. Companies that are doing lots of research are trying to solve problems that the rest of the industry is most likely to encounter, a good analogy is that these companies are the ice breaker ships for the entire fleet. Huawei Technologies has become a major player here but we believe Qualcomm is the undisputed leader in this space as they have been leading in 3G, 4G and 5G and the company is continuing to invest heavily in R&D to ensure that leadership continues all the way through 5G and eventually to 6G.
5G release 15
Qualcomm was one of the 3GPP members has contributed greatly to where 5G is today, including pushing for the phase 1 and phase 2 releases of the 5G NR standard that are coming with Release 15 which include NSA (non-standalone) and SA (standalone) 5G networks. This is important because Qualcomm pushed for the two-phase approach which brought us 5G NR a year earlier (2019) rather than the originally planned 2020 (hence why the global standard is called IMT-2020). Qualcomm has also had other major contributions that have shaped the 5G standard’s direction and accelerated development for the whole industry, solving problems. Release 15 of the 3GPP specification was very academic and crucial to establishing the foundations for 5G that will carry on through the technology for the next decade and beyond. 3GPP’s Release 16 is all about the fundamentals of applying the ideals of release 15 into the new industries that 5G is trying to address and bring into cellular connectivity. Release 16 is about adding a small number of new capabilities to meet the requirements of those new industries while maintaining a common platform, the 5G network. We already saw this happen to a degree in Release 15 with C-V2X, which was originally introduced in Release 14 as part of 4G LTE incorporating C-V2X into 5G. This was also enabled thanks to Qualcomm’s creation of the device to device feature within 4G LTE which ultimately allowed for C-V2X and the creation of first responder networks like AT&T’s FirstNet.
5G release 16
One new industry that has a big area of focus for 3GPP Release 16 is Industrial IoT. In the area of industrial IoT, private 5G networks are a big lure for factory owners, but operators who have been part of the creation of the standard don’t want to have issues with these private networks, so Qualcomm is helping them bridge the gap between them to find solutions that satisfy both parties. Qualcomm has been a pioneer in enabling the use of unlicensed spectrum for 4G LTE (LAA), which is partly what has enabled some of the crazy LTE speeds you may have been noticing recently. With 5G, however, they’ve found a way to separate the licensed and unlicensed carriers so that a licensed anchor isn’t required to enable unlicensed access. These networks will most likely operate on the 60 GHz unlicensed band, much like LAA operates on 5 GHz today, but there’s also the possibility it may operate on other frequencies like 6 GHz and 95 GHz.
Other contributors to 3GPP’s 5G NR standard like Huawei have also been instrumental in the establishment of the standard. Huawei’s developments in polar codes found their way into the coding scheme for the control channels of 5G NR. However, this contribution to the standard while relevant does not amount to the same amount of work that Qualcomm has produced to create solutions for 5G. The 3GPP organization is made up of many different companies, including operators, infrastructure vendors, and smartphone OEMs, many of these companies make small contributions together that make up the whole of the standard. Very few of these companies can solve some of these problems on their own and it is generally the experts like Huawei and Qualcomm that are able to solve major wireless problems. The amount of contributions themselves is not relevant, but rather their overall impact on the standard and whether they are adopted by the industry.
These innovations are not the end, there are many things being discussed as part of 3GPP Release 16 that include incorporating broadcast technologies into 5G to broaden the capabilities of operators and seamlessly deliver TV services to consumers with richer content and interactivity. Release 16 is still not complete yet, so it remains to be seen exactly what makes it into Release 16 or what will end up in 17. Nevertheless, Qualcomm is investing billions of dollars into 5G R&D every year, the company spent north of $5.6 billion last year and the company was fighting off hostile takeovers and assaults on their fundamental business model. When the company cut its budgets to appease investors, R&D was the only part of the company that didn’t see significant budgetary or staffing cuts. They take their role as an innovator and industry leader very seriously and understand what could happen to the entire wireless industry if they were to cut back on R&D. Because of these facts, there’s no doubt in my mind that Qualcomm is the leader in 5G innovation and standard settings. The next part of this series will cover chipset leadership in 5G and see exactly what the status of the industry is there.