Qualcomm CTO talks meeting growing network capacity needs in cities

Qualcomm's chief technology officer discusses how the wireless giant is aiming to meet network capacity needs in cities in a mobile world at Meeting of the Minds 2012.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO -- Addressing the challenges for wireless networks as the world goes more mobile requires some reverse thinking, according to Qualcomm's chief technology officer Matt Grob.

Speaking at Meeting of the Minds 2012 on Wednesday morning, Grob presented how Qualcomm plans to "dramatically improve the quality of wireless networks over the next 10 years."

"Our answer is it's got to be 1,000 times better than it is today," asserted Grob, declaring that there are going to be an estimated 1.2 billion smartphones by 2016 along with hundreds of millions of tablets on mobile networks.
The CTO acknowledged that doesn't mean that Qualcomm is going to discover 1,000 times more spectrum and build more complex radios with thousands of antennas. He did say that the industry is "constantly looking for new sources of spectrum," and we'll likely see 10 times more available with 10 years.
The ultimate goal, Grob said, is to increase the supply of bandwidth and bits as fast as demand goes up so the price doesn't go up.
"We want to keep the service plans and those kinds of things at current rates or lower despite the demand that could drive them up," Grob affirmed.

He pointed out that we're already seeing strains on wireless networks with data caps from providers. Grob add that's why Qualcomm is introducing small base stations.

Essentially, Grob said that Qualcomm is going to get to achieving these goals by shrinking the cell radius, which would actually offer more capacity and reusing spectrum in more places.
One strategy is rethinking the delivery of the network. Grob said that, traditionally, base stations are found outside and up on towers -- but a lot of the usage is indoors. The problem is that you have to overcome path loss.
Grob argued that it's "time for a new paradigm," which consists of small base stations inside buildings that also provide coverage outside.
Citing internal research, Grob said that tests show that indoor small cell base stations provide more (and usually better) coverage outside.
He added that small cells can enable use of new spectrum bands. Currently, there are three classes of spectrum:

  • Licensed spectrum auctions (i.e. what Verizon, AT&T, etc. use and deploy today)
  • Unlicensed (Wi-Fi: No one owns it, but you have to comply with some regulations, etc.)
  • Authorized shared access (Spectrum that is owned by incumbents such as government or military, but not used much either spatially or temporally. They have it but they won't give it up.)

Grob commented that the wireless industry is hoping to get closer to these authorized shared access networks, in particular.
He posited that focusing on reducing the cost and size for small cells can improve network performance, get those 1,000x gains, and leverage other kinds of deployments taking place.
To sum up the big picture, Grob explained that if we start with the capacity we have today using macro base stations and then introduce small cells to 9 percent of households in a given neighborhood along with the 10 times more spectrum gathered from shared access, auctions and unlicensed altogether, the combination will give us 500 times more capacity than we have today.
If we bump that up to 20 percent of households with still just 10 times more spectrum, that shoots up to 1,000 times more network capacity.

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