This article is part of a series highlighting the collaboration between Rakuten Mobile and its partners to build the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native mobile network. In this edition, we speak with Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager, 4G/5G, at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.
One of the world’s leading chip companies has gone back to the future. Best known as a supplier of the advanced semiconductors that control smartphones, Qualcomm Technologies’ cooperation with Rakuten Mobile has seen the chip company reprise its historic role as a holistic supplier of cellular technology.
Having spent decades developing highly-integrated, cost-effective chipsets for handsets, Qualcomm Technologies is now applying that expertise to the silicon employed in the radio access network infrastructure. As well as providing the chips that control 4G and 5G devices, Qualcomm Technologies is supplying baseband silicon solutions for the radio resources employed in Rakuten Mobile’s cell sites, enabling the new network to benefit from the San Diego-based company’s highly-integrated, cost-effective semiconductors. Its integrated baseband chips are designed to process the radio signals with the RFIC (radio frequency integrated circuit) and manage the wireless transmissions.
“We are providing solutions that support both sides of the air interface. We have been doing that in 3G and 4G, but with 5G we are taking that to the next level,” says Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager, 4G/5G, at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. “We are cooperating with Rakuten Mobile, both as a technology provider and as someone who can also provide a complete perspective of how we think the network should be. It’s more holistic.”
One of the drivers behind the Rakuten Mobile and Qualcomm Technologies cooperation is their common commitment to virtualization and cloud nativeness in the radio access network (RAN), bringing about a separation of the hardware and software that aims to afford greater flexibility and lower costs. From a user perspective, the disaggregation of hardware and software can deliver a much more consistent connectivity and quality experience, as it enables the network to dynamically reallocate resources on the fly.
“You might go from a public network into a venue, and from there you might go into an enterprise, but no matter where you go, your user experience can actually remain pretty good and unchanged,” explains Malladi. “Indoor small cells become a very natural fit… so you don’t feel that you’re actually going in and out of two different kinds of networks. It is designed to seem like one network… that’s how an end-user would likely perceive it.”
Driving the telecoms industry forward
With significant annual R&D investment, Qualcomm Technologies is a major player in the development of new cellular technologies and related standards. “We share Qualcomm Technologies’ enthusiasm for using new technologies to continually push the envelope of what is possible,” says Tareq Amin, chief technology officer of Rakuten Mobile. “The two companies are kindred spirits in the sense that we are always thinking about what comes next and how to further enrich the end-user’s experience.”
Qualcomm Technologies researches and develops end-to-end system wireless solutions, and in the process, their R&D helps to not only discover new innovations, but also to experiment and learn from what doesn’t make it off the drawing board. “When we started working with Rakuten on disaggregated RAN, it was time to take it from our R&D phase into a proper commercial deployment, which brings out its own challenges,” explains Malladi. “There’s a good starting point, as we know what works, but perhaps we also know what doesn’t work. And those are lessons that we brought to the table.”
Now that Rakuten has demonstrated that a disaggregated RAN with split architecture can work well at scale, Qualcomm Technologies is seeing interest from operators worldwide in also adopting this pioneering approach to building a cellular network. “The momentum, in terms of making steps in the direction, is pretty good: I see an analogy between millimeter wave as a technology and disaggregated RAN as a technology,” says Malladi, referring to the high frequency spectrum bands used by some 5G networks to deliver a step-change in capacity. “As millimeter has been adopted in North America… it’s gradually becoming mainstream. A lot of global operators are saying, ‘It seems to work; let’s go with it.’ A similar thing is happening on the disaggregated network side as well… some of them are making their own public statements saying they will go with the same kind of topology.”
A bigger, broader role for cellular technology
In the meantime, Qualcomm Technologies is working with Rakuten Mobile and other operators to explore emerging use cases for 5G networks, which offer a step-change in throughput, capacity and latency. Whereas 4G networks generally serve smartphones, 5G networks will be serving a much broader range of devices used across all sectors of the economy. “We are now transitioning from a consumer-centric technology into an operational technology,” says Malladi.
New use cases include XR (virtual reality and augmented reality) applications designed to support collaborative workplaces, employing edge computing capabilities aimed to improve the efficiency of enterprises, and, in time, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications that is intended to make driving safer and more efficient.
“Qualcomm Technologies is a technology treadmill: we constantly come out with new technologies and always have new ideas,” notes Malladi. “But these new ideas need adopters and people who believe in the new concepts… Rakuten gets equally excited about the new technology that’s coming.”