The coming impact of 5G, with its fast transmission speeds, low latency and increased network capacity, is poised to transform industries, give rise to new ones, and turbocharge economies. It will enable the rise of smart cities, self-driving cars, industrial robotics and further transform distributed business models, from remote working to edge computing, for enterprise applications.
Among the major technology players leading this revolution is Qualcomm, the $180+ billion technology company that today is the global leader in 5G. Much of that leadership comes from Qualcomm’s current president and CEO-Elect Cristiano R. Amon, who, the company announced in early January, will become Qualcomm’s next CEO starting June 30, 2021.
Over the past several years, Amon has been spearheading efforts to roll out new 5G networks across the globe, helping Qualcomm become the leading technology supplier for the hyperconnected future. The advent of that future has the potential to stimulate $13.1 trillion in global sales by 2035, according to an IHS Markit report, while remaking the way we live and work today.
Amon recently took time for a virtual fireside chat with Mark Fields, the former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company and currently a member of Qualcomm’s board (in other words, someone Amon talks with on a regular basis), to talk smart factories, AI at the edge, and the continued transformation of distributed and highly connected enterprises.
Below is an edited and condensed excerpt of their conversation.
The 5G Future
Mark Fields: One thing that drew me to the Qualcomm board is your leadership role in 5G and the impact 5G will have on every industry and vertical on the planet. Where is 5G today, and what factors will determine how fast or how slow it will be implemented?
Cristiano Amon: 5G will be the key ingredient of the digital economy. There are now 95 operators in over 40 countries that have launched 5G services. There are 300 more working on 5G. We’re going to close this calendar year with over 200 million users on 5G technologies.
Now think about where we’re going. In 2022, the projection is for 750 million users. By 2025, it’s over 3 billion users, with 45% of all data traffic on 5G networks.
At this rate, it’s going to be enormous, and it’s growing faster than everyone predicted.
• Society’s connective fabric
Let’s talk about what lies ahead. How is 5G different from 4G? And how does it make it possible to connect so many more devices than the previous technologies?
With every generation of wireless, there is a problem to be solved. That’s what Qualcomm focuses on. So in the beginning, it was about everyone on the planet having a wireless telephone — that was 2G. When we went to 3G, it was about getting data to those devices, and that’s when we saw the advent of messaging and email. With 4G, it was about bringing broadband data to the device, and that was the smartphone era. Now, when we get to 5G — 5G has been designed to connect everything to the cloud, 100% of the time, in a reliable manner.
That’s how we go from a few billion smartphones to the 100 billions of devices that connect everything around it. That is, in essence, what 5G is. And that’s why it’s getting so much momentum: At the end of the day, it’s going to be the connectivity fabric of the society.
• Everyone a 4K broadcaster
Mobile technologies never stand still. How will 5G continue to evolve?
Today, if you buy a 5G phone, you’re going to see significantly faster data speeds. So you’re starting to see the ability to democratize video. 5G will do to video what 4G did to music. Music is streamed now. People don’t buy CDs. That’s going to be how we’ll think about consuming video in that 5G era. Also, it’s going to turn everyone into a broadcaster with a 4K camera streaming straight to the cloud. 5G is also changing gaming. It’s changing social media. That’s what we’re seeing today.
But what’s coming ahead is the next version of 5G, which we’re going to see commercialized in 2021. We’ll start bringing a lot of the capabilities that are necessary for industrial applications. With that, 5G is going to be a key technology for the digital transformation of many enterprises.
• Supercharged AI on every device
There’s a lot of buzz out there around artificial intelligence. You’ve spoken particularly a lot about 5G and artificial intelligence. What does that mean for the consumer and businesses?
When 4G happened, you were able to provide broadband speeds to mobile devices. That changed the phone into a computer. 5G is going to accelerate and provide enormous scale to artificial intelligence. I will be so bold to say that AI will only develop to its full potential with 5G.
When you connect everything to the cloud, you see a significant increase in data. And with that increased data, you can apply machine learning computing to develop artificial intelligence.
Take, for example, cameras. They have the ability for you — in real time — to use computation to analyze the data and make decisions. You can think, for example, of an alarm system: The smart camera can detect — “Is this person supposed to be here or not?” — all the way to how you think about a camera in an industrial line analyzing products going through the manufacturing line doing quality control. The ability to connect the data to the cloud, where you run machine learning, is going to really create an era of artificial intelligence.
5G is moving the data center from its concrete buildings to the edge of the network. So the transition of 5G will be accompanied by one of the biggest transitions we’ll see — the use of artificial intelligence on every device.
• Transformed businesses and verticals
Whether you’re an auto company or you’re selling tomatoes, every business is a technology company today. How will this technology shape industries and verticals?
No company will be able to escape digital transformation. Think about the data from a smartphone camera image. That data goes to the cloud. You can do facial recognition. You can identify, through social media, people you’re meeting, find information about them, superimpose that information from the cloud over a pair of augmented reality goggles. You can take that into the business world to help you do your job. Or you can use augmented reality to instantly train a worker on a task, whether it’s mechanical or in construction in the field.
We’re working with utility companies that are thinking about how they [can] build a 5G substation as a digital twin of the power grid in the cloud. They can use artificial intelligence to self-heal the network by opening and closing circuit breakers that are connected with 5G.
Think about manufacturing. In the ’90s, the strategy was to build the biggest factory and have the lowest conversion cost per product. But it’s expensive to retool a factory. With 5G, you can build smaller factories. You can run them over a centralized location and use 5G to reliably connect to manufacturing robots. You also get a lot of data from different manufacturing sites. You use machine learning for productivity increases. And as you remove wires, you can run more products in the same site or even shorten product cycles because it’s easier to retool.
Now think about enterprise. The pandemic created an environment where your home has been transformed into an enterprise. But companies are still going to have office space. So, you will now have to connect people that are outside to the people that are inside the office. Enterprises are thinking about how to use 5G, how to use virtual reality capabilities that will enable you to connect two spaces using different types of devices. So workers can be part of the future enterprise in and out of the office space.
Once a new connectivity technology is created and launched, it’s designed to last a decade or more. In many cases, the actual use cases and applications are yet to be invented. If anything, I would say 5G is one of the greatest opportunities for innovation we have seen in a long time.