Qualcomm & Samsung Now Jointly Pursuing 5G Small Cells

Qualcomm and Samsung are teaming up on a new 5G push, this time targeting small cell infrastructure. The two technology giants will be jointly developing new small cell solutions specifically designed for the fifth generation of mobile networks, with the partnership being described as an evolving long-term endeavor. The first product stemming from the collaboration is a Samsung Small Cell station based on the Qualcomm FSM100xx, a chipset the San Diego, California-based company announced earlier this year. The module will be optimized to use both the millimeter-wave and sub-6GHz spectrum, hence allowing for a wide variety of use cases. That versatility is what Qualcomm and Samsung describe as one of its main selling points, claiming the small cell station will enable both 4.5G and 5G networking. The Samsung 5G Small Cell station will start being sampled in 2020, though it’s still unclear how long the testing period will actually take.

As expected, Samsung and Qualcomm officials described the newly unveiled partnership — announced at the latest iteration of the annual Qualcomm 4G/5G Summit — as a major milestone on the road toward global 5G connectivity, predicting their technologies will allow for unprecedented networking performance that’s both easily scalable and highly cost-effective.

Background: Small cells are widely seen as one of the foundational blocks of the 5G equation. The next generation on mobile connectivity will largely be reliant on the millimeter-wave spectrum which can allow for unprecedented speeds, latencies, and capacities, but isn’t suitable for long-distance travel and has weak penetration capabilities as its signal is prone to being absorbed by everything from rain to foliage. That’s where small cells come into play, offering a way for mmWave frequencies to bounce off between hotspots using minimal infrastructure that’s easy to install and maintain relative to traditional cell towers.

The FSM100xx used by Samsung’s newly announced small cell is an industry-first chipset originally launched in late May. The product is a direct successor to the Qualcomm FSM silicon for 3G and 4G small cells that’s been a massive hit for the chipmaker, especially in its home country. The module is built on a 10nm process node, hence being comparable to the high-end Snapdragon 835 and Snapdragon 845 mobile chips in terms of architecture efficiency. Qualcomm designed the FSM100xx with indoor usage in mind, seeking to cater to the main use case for contemporary small cells - last-mile communications. Both multi-gigabit throughput and MIMO are part of the package, as is a software-defined modem allowing for smooth upgrades.

The latter feature is of particular importance as 5G technologies are still in their infancies and the process of standardization has yet to be completed. With a software-defined modem, original equipment manufacturers are able to stay on top of things, periodically modifying their small cells in order to stay compliant with the latest 3GPP releases. Another major selling point of the chipset is its support for interface splits between central units and remote radio heads, which allows for even more versatile implementations.

Qualcomm and Samsung have been collaborating on 5G for many years now, with their creations essentially making up an end-to-end telecommunications solution. Samsung will also be one of the first Android OEMs to utilize the Snapdragon X50, Qualcomm’s first 5G modem for smartphones and tablets. The module will be an optional part of the Snapdragon 845 successor rumored to launch as the Snapdragon 8150, the company confirmed in late summer. Samsung is expected to use Qualcomm’s 5G solution for select variants of the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note 10, though those models are unlikely to be sold in the United States.

Samsung has also been active on the infrastructure front over the last few years, having most recently cleared a massive $22 billion fund dedicated to 5G and artificial intelligence technologies. The sizable sum will be invested by 2021, the company said in early August. Its U.S. infrastructure business has been booming as well, with the firm now being a supplier of AT&T and Verizon, the largest two wireless carriers in the country. While network hardware is not a new avenue for Samsung to explore, it’s an area that remains undeveloped relative to the size of the company’s other units, which is something that it’s hoping to change with the help of 5G.

Impact: Samsung and Qualcomm’s newly announced partnership additionally strengthens their relations at a time when the latter is struggling to maintain the performance of its flagship licensing business. Securing Samsung as a long-term ally should hence provide a significant boost to Qualcomm’s operations, especially as the manner in which it now joined forces with the South Korean tech juggernaut will also help it further establish its 5G leadership.

Qualcomm’s failure to acquire Dutch NFC pioneer NXP Semiconductors made 5G an all-in bet for the firm as it’s now left without an easy option to diversify its portfolio of products and services. The fifth generation of wireless networks promises to be the next best thing as the performance gains it should enable are widely expected to allow for entirely new technologies, consequently kickstarting novel industries and boosting existing ones, both of which should lead to significant job creation on a global scale.

Samsung itself likely sees a partnership with Qualcomm as a safe way to continue building its network equipment portfolio, something it prioritized doing in recent times, particularly with the advent of 5G. The company’s network infrastructure business in the U.S. has been enjoying steady growth over the last several years and the Seoul-based chaebol is expected to continue pursuing new investments in the segment moving forward. Samsung will hence now be competing with the likes of Nokia and Ericsson in the network hardware front, with the firm already scoring a major tech win earlier this month by being partially responsible for Verizon’s 5G Home network. As its semiconductor business is now peaking, whereas the global smartphone market has been stagnating for about a year already, Samsung is likely to become more adventurous with new tech investments and small cells are certainly a part of that strategy, though it remains to be seen how Qualcomm-reliant its future hardware portfolio truly ends up being.

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