QualComm and OFDM

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ever since QualComm acquired Flarion, their claims about CDMA Vs OFDM have been taken with a pinch of salt. There is no doubt that the best case situation for them is the continuation of CDMA-based technologies. The longer it takes to phase out CDMA-based networks in favor of OFDM systems (DO Rev-C, WiMax etc), the more money QualComm makes from its patents and its core competency area. The Flarion acquisition sent jitters to a lot of players who were hoping to phase out QualComm by marginalizing CDMA. It also meant that QualComm could no longer continue their OFDM program clandestinely.

The Flarion acquisition worked out very well for QualComm. They paid a little over $800 Million for a good-sized engineering team, new offices and presence in the East, a complete end-to-end OFDMA standard with valuable IP, expertise in areas such as coding theory (advances in which QualComm had chosen to ignore up to that point) and of course, a lot more attention from the wireless world.

While clearly protecting their primary assets i.e. their CDMA IP and product line, QualComm has left no stones unturned in any standard that is OFDM-based or is looking to adapt OFDM as its evolution path. Here are some points that indicate QualComm's gaurded aggression with respect to OFDM systems-

Acquisition of AirGo with its Wi-Fi assets: This should give them an entry-point into the WLAN market. With their ability to manufacture in volumes and also with their brand-name they have the ability to complement AirGo's superior TrueMIMO solution. They would attempt to muscle their way to a piece of the very attractive WLAN cake as well. Besides, this gives them OFDM-MIMO IP and the power to get into the lap-top market as well. They are also likely to integrate it into their all-in-all snapdragon platform and come up with integrated 3G-WLAN chips. AirGo, though marginalized in the WLAN market, shares a synergy with QualComm in being technology innovators. They also thrive to have the best performing products in the market and this is likely to gel well with QualComm's overall philosophy.

LTE activities: Though debates on HSPA performance Vs LTE's OFDM path are a regular feature in the RAN1 rooms, QualComm has also been actively involved in the standardization of the OFDM system as the LTE path of 3GPP. In fact, Corporate R&D majorly expanded its LTE team recently.

3GPP2: Need one doubt QualComm's position here? A lot of the FLASH-OFDM/Flarion IP has gone into the creation of EV-DO Rev C. Is this indicative of the fact that even QualComm sees the death of CDMA? It represents QualComm's initiative to remain in the competition amidst other similar standards. They may well have swallowed the hard truth that to remain competitive is to give in to the benefits of OFDM/OFDMA over CDMA. For the data-centric communications of the future, it appears that OFDM is getting ahead and for QualComm to steer EV-DO towards OFDMA tells a rather forceful story.

The TeleCIS coup: QualComm recently acquired the mobile WiMax assets alone of TeleCIS announcing their direct foray into the WiMax space. With the acquisition, QualComm would be positioned to have WiMax products 'if the need arises'. Again, they have obtained more OFDMA IP and an experienced engineering team to add to their small but successful Campbell team. I would call it a coup because it was all done under the gun without even a press-release. Besides, the news of the acquisition came at a time when former Sprint man and current head of QualComm's mobile-business unit, Mr.Len Lauer was publicly bashing WiMax. The TeleCIS move will also help them avoid the danger of being left out in a future with integrated WLAN-WiMax chipsets. They had all other ingredients to make this happen, and now it is complete! It would not be surprising to most who follow QualComm that they have already started expanding the acquired group indicating an active step forward in terms of WiMax research and development within the company. It is not IP that has been bought to be used in case of contingency, it is something that they are acting on and following up rather aggressively.

The changing face of the core group: The young guns at both Corporate R&D and QCT want to work on OFDM since that is where the cool innovations can occur. With new blood comes a new thought process, and change! The company as a whole is looking up to innovations in areas other than their core competency and with the face of QualComm's engineering team changing, this is a thought ingrained into every new engineer entering the firm while the old-timers carefully guard the old CDMA school of thought.

It is a different question whether OFDM-based 4G standards will become popular in a reasonable time-frame. But QualComm is already taking great strides in attempts to stay ahead of the rest in this great race and may well be in a good position to head a movement for a unified wireless standard in the future. They have to their advantage, a relatively smaller but focussed team and the financial horse-power to back unbridled research and product development to achieve the superiority they desire.

Posted by Vijay Nagarajan at 4:25 PM  


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