Vicarious MWC – The Power of a Single Hyphen

This is part of our continuing remote coverage of MWC 2022.

Today we want to touch on one of Qualcomm’s more intriguing press releases – “New Snapdragon X70 Modem-RF Harnesses World’s First 5G AI Processor for Industry Leading Performance and Experiences“. And we can sum up the significance of this press release with a single character – a hyphen. In particular, that hyphen between Modem and RF.

We write about RF chips a lot here, and this is a field where we get a lot of questions. Here are some of our more recent pieces on the subject – one is some background on the segment and the other is a look at Qualcomm’s work in the space. In the latter piece, we mention the “Holy Grail” of RF – a system which ties together a phone’s modem with its RF chain. Our thesis is that this kind of solution has the potential to fundamentally shift the industry. Lofty ideas, and Qualcomm has gone and summed it up with a single hyphen.

To be clear, Qualcomm still has a long way to go before they reach full potential. But their path is clear and this week’s announcement is a big step along that path.

Why does this matter? RF systems are messy – they contain dozens of components over a handful of modules. They need to be built this way because they essentially straddle the divide between analog, real-world signals in the form of radio waves and the digital domain of raw compute thrown at 1’s and 0’s. At heart, RF systems take a physical signal and then generate some electrical response. There is no “decision making” here – a given input generates a pre-determined output. (Yes, we are greatly simplifying chips which literally push the bounds of the laws of physics.) RF chips have no meaningful logic, so they have no easy way to adapt to changing conditions or “anticipate” future changes. By contrast, the digital side of the phone – the modem and the applications processor – are entirely built of logic chips. They can throw compute at problems to make predictions. By tying the two together, the digital side can improve the performance of the analog, RF side. For instance, processors are fairly good at pattern detection, and so they can help adjust the RF chips by making predictions about the next radio signal to arrive which can then adjust power levels or tune the antenna slightly differently. The digital side can never entirely replace the analog side, but it can greatly improve the efficiency of how the analog side operates.

This has real world impact. A predictive RF chain will use less energy, reduce dropped calls and improve call quality. In the moment, consumers may not notice this, but over time the improved performance will enhance the overall perception of quality of a phone which uses this combination. It can also make better use of radio spectrum – which is something the telecom operators care about more than anything else. Read through the press release and many of the features mentioned touch on topics such as carrier aggregation, uplink and downlink, and roaming. The rough decoding of this is that this hyphen means the operators will be able to squeeze more data out of existing spectrum, reducing the need for extra base stations. (Again we simplifying a lot here, contact us if you would like more detail.)

And not least, this kind of system can help phone makers reduce the number of devices they need to make. Most people think that Apple makes 4 phones – the 13 and 13 Pro, in regular and Max versions. In reality, Apple makes about a dozen phones that carry those labels. They have to make different versions of the phone depending on which market it is sold into. Different operators in different countries use different frequency bands, and this all gets so complicated that there is no way to build a phone that covers all bands. Until now. By tying the modem to the RF, Qualcomm is opening a path for phone makers to reduce the number of variants they need to make. Some day, this can be boiled down to a single version for all markets. Consumers will not really notice, but we once calculated this works out to a few billion dollars in inventory that can be taken off the books.

To be clear, what Qualcomm announced is not quite there yet. The new system can do a lot, but it points the way down the path rather than marking arrival at the destination. It is also worth noting that Qualcomm has not spelled out this whole vision. In part, this is just responsible marketing, the technology is not quite ready, and it is incredibly complex. However, it is also a function of Qualcomm having already announced this vision, almost 15 years ago with their RF 360 product. If you dig out their original pitch for that it jibes with how we describe all of this today. The problem is that when they first announced RF 360 all Qualcomm had was vision and PowerPoint. So we sense they are reluctant to get too far ahead of themselves this time around.

Perhaps the largest tell in this press release is the prominent mention of the term “AI”. Now we recognize that AI is among the most abused terms around right now (right up there with “5G” and “crypto”), but in this context it carries significance. We mentioned above that digital chips are good at making predictions, and AI algorithms are the way that those predictions get made. Without that tie-up with the modem, there is no point in using AI in conjunction with RF, there is no way to implement it.

This is a fairly momentous shift in the industry. It will put pressure on RF vendors who do not make modems (i.e. everyone), who will someday find that their best products cannot match the performance of Qualcomm’s systems, even if Qualcomm’s individual products are not quite as good. There is a lot of weight sitting on that single hyphen.

Photo by Qualcomm

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