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Connectivity is king: It's not coincidence that the theme for this year’s Mobile World Congress is 'Connectivity Unleashed'. As simple as that two-word phrase may be, it highlights the increasing reach and importance of connectivity-based technologies and the capabilities they enable across an increasingly broad range of devices. A recent study by Comcast found that nearly half of US respondents viewed Wi-Fi as more important than reliable transportation in their daily lives.
Qualcomm is living up to the MWC theme, announcing a huge range of products and partnerships at the show that demonstrate the value of connectivity. From connected cars, cellular network infrastructure, 5G edge computing, audio devices, smartphones, connected PCs, and the chips to power them, Qualcomm managed to unveil offerings that fit into most of the hottest categories in tech.
Two of the biggest debuts, from the perspective of long-term influence, centered around new chips designed for the latest advances in Wi-Fi and 5G. The company announced the FastConnect 7800 Wi-Fi chips that support the up-and-coming Wi-Fi 7 standard, as well as its fifth generation 5G modem the X70. Both of these will end up in everything from next generation smartphones, PCs, and tablets to connected cars, edge computing resources, broadband wireless routers, and more.
Qualcomm also announced a branding program for its best Wi-Fi, 5G, and Bluetooth connectivity solutions called Snapdragon Connect that’s designed to make it easier for consumers to figure out which products feature their most-capable chips. The effort is akin to Snapdragon Sound, which highlights devices with the most advanced wireless audio capabilities.
On the Wi-Fi front, even though it seems like the industry has barely gotten into the Wi-Fi 6 and 6E era, evolution of the standard never stops, and Wi-Fi 7 will support some important new capabilities when devices that support it start to appear next year.
As with previous iterations of Wi-Fi, chips supporting a pre-release version of the spec will come out before the final spec is approved, a process that isn’t expected to be completed until early 2024. Wi-Fi 7 allows the usage of all three different frequency bands available for Wi-Fi, including the traditional 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and the new 6 GHz band (at least in the US and a few other countries around the world), without having to specifically select a channel in advance. In other words, it’s smart about how and where to direct data traffic -- that is, as long as both device and router support the Wi-Fi 7 standard.
Leveraging a technology called High Band Simultaneous (HBS) Multi-Link, the 7800 chips will allow devices to transmit and/or receive data at a faster rate than any previous Wi-Fi standard by allowing a single data stream to be broken up across multiple channels.
Practically speaking, channels up to 320 MHz wide can be created by using up to four chunks of frequencies simultaneously across both the 5 GHz and 6 GHz range. This translates into a potential maximum throughput of 5.8 Gbps when using 6 GHz channels and 4.3 Gbps when using 5 GHz. Another benefit to this approach is that doing so can free up the often overloaded 2.4 GHz frequencies for older Wi-Fi devices that still use it and for Bluetooth connections.
Speaking of Bluetooth, the Fast Connect 7800 also incorporates two separate Bluetooth radios and allows their simultaneous use. Devices that use the chip can thus enjoy higher-resolution wireless audio (uncompressed 24-bit, 96 kHz signals), more high-speed device connections, longer transmission distances, and longer battery life -- thanks to a lower battery draw.
Simultaneous channel usage is also a key feature of Qualcomm’s latest X70 5G modem. However, the most distinguished capability of this new chip -- which should start showing up in smartphones by the end of this year -- is that it includes a dedicated AI processor for improving 5G connection quality and speed.
Just as we’re seeing AI processing used to enhance the transmission efficiency of signals from 5G-enabled cell towers, AI processing can also be used to improve 5G signal reception on endpoint devices. In the case of the X70, the AI processing is being driven by what the company calls the 5G AI Suite and does things like real-time optimization of channel reception, beam management for improved mmWave performance, intelligent network selection for improving link stability, adaptive antenna tuning, and more.
As with its previous generation, the X70 architecture supports a max throughput of 10 Gbps (about twice the potential throughput of the fastest Wi-Fi chips), but it adds even wider support for various worldwide frequencies being used for 5G networks. In addition, there’s support for more types of carrier aggregation, which translates to simultaneous usage of more types of signals and frequency ranges, up to 4X in the case of downlink connections and 2x for uplink. At a real-world level, this means the overall average download and upload speeds on devices equipped with an X70 should be higher in more places because it can take advantage of more types of frequency combinations.
One other modem-related announcement that Qualcomm made at MWC was around 5G modem modules for PCs, based on both the X65 and X62 modems. This is important because by having these M.2 format modules get pre-certified by carriers around the world, it makes the process of integrating 5G into PCs much easier for the major OEMs. Given the expected growing interest in 5G-capable PCs now that more people are starting to return to the office and engage in business travel, this bit of news could prove to be much more significant than it first appears.
There’s little doubt that connectivity will continue to rise in importance as hybrid work trends evolve and as people start to make new devices purchases over the next few years. It's great timing on Qualcomm’s part to push these evolutionary advancements in its connectivity technologies, and given the improved Wi-Fi and 5G offerings from MediaTek, it is useful from a competitive perspective as well. Qualcomm is continuing to push the state-of-the-art when it comes to a wide range of wireless connectivity technologies. As more devices depend on these connections, the ability to enable them will be increasingly important.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.