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With Key Intellectual Property, Qualcomm Positions Itself To Lead on 5G

Engineers at Qualcomm Inc. are shaping a new, faster form of wireless communications.

The technology, called 5G, could be in consumers’ hands as soon as 2019, and revenues from it are expected to flow to the San Diego business.

Consumers and businesses people who want to use 5G’s ultrafast and nearly immediate data service will need to get new phones, and wireless carriers will need new cell tower equipment. 5G is also expected to connect a variety of machines, including cars, to the internet.

Regulators worldwide have yet to adopt a 5G standard, but Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) asserts it is a leader, and its technology will be central to the 5G standard.

As it has in the past, Qualcomm is expected to make microchips for the new technology. And, since it will own patents central to 5G, a royalty from every wireless device sold will flow to the San Diego business.

Meanwhile, other companies and states are preparing for 5G. Many are focusing on 5G cell equipment, including devices called small cells. Small Cells

Several businesses stand to win if more small cells are deployed, said Ken Schmidt, a wireless consultant based in upstate New York. They include companies owning the fiber optic infrastructure connecting small cells to terrestrial networks, companies such as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA), Crown Castle (NYSE: CCI) and a familiar name in San Diego, privately held Cox Communications Inc. Big wireless service providers such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) also stand to gain, he said.

Small cells have limited range. Wireless telecom carriers are expected to mount them on lampposts and traffic signal posts.

The California Legislature in September passed a bill that makes it easier for telecom carriers to deploy small cells. In addition, SB 649 limits fees that local governments may charge carriers for space on city infrastructure such as poles. A state senator representing San Diego County, Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, carried the bill.

Schmidt said he counts 21 states that have considered similar bills.

Schmidt’s business, Steel in the Air, represents property owners and public entities in their lease negotiations with wireless carriers and tower companies.

As of Sept. 26, Gov. Jerry Brown had not signed SB 649.

Bill opponents say that cities’ rights are being trampled and municipalities need to maintain control over what happens within their own boundaries.

All Over the Spectrum

Small cells are not new on the wireless landscape. Carriers already use them for the current 4G technology to augment the work of conventional cell towers.

A proliferation of small cells is expected with the roll-out of 5G.

5G is a different animal than its predecessors. Some but not all 5G signals will use the millimeter-wave portion of the radio spectrum. Such radio waves don’t penetrate objects such as windows and walls; even people or the foliage of a tree can block them.

A Qualcomm spokesman said there are technical work-arounds to that problem.

First off, 5G will use three separate parts of the radio spectrum, including parts which have “excellent propagation,” said Rasmus Hellberg, senior director of technical marketing with Qualcomm Technologies Inc. (For those who like details, 5G signals will occupy three swaths of radio spectrum: an area below 1 gigahertz, an area in the 3 to 4 gigahertz range and finally millimeter-wave, which is roughly 24 gigahertz and above. It’s the latter portion that will need small cells.)

Secondly, millimeter wave signals can be improved. One technique is shaping a beam of radio signals like a flashlight, Hellberg said.

“5G is not just about small cells — but small cells will be important to 5G,” Hellberg said.

Schmidt said there is an ongoing debate about how many small cells and 5G cells are needed — at least in the next five years. A robust 5G network needed to support autonomous cars is probably years in the future, he said. He added that the federal government — not the big four wireless carriers — might take charge of that infrastructure.

A Political Journey

Meanwhile, the journey of a bill through the California legislature has left a trail of bad feelings.

Cities and counties cried foul over SB 649, saying the bill takes away their authority. If signed into law by the governor, the legislation will diminish local governments’ discretion on where cell tower infrastructure can be placed. The League of California Cities has opposed the bill, saying it eliminates public input, takes away reasonable local review, forces cities to lease their pole space to carriers, and jettisons local government’s ability to negotiate fair leases.

Specifically, the bill limits a city or county’s annual lease charge to wireless companies for cell phone infrastructure to $250. Without the state government getting involved, cities and counties have been able to charge up to 10 times that amount, Schmidt said.

The League of California Cities also says the bill does not specifically mention 5G. It expressed fears the bill would open the door to more small cells for 4G communication, or for Wi-Fi.

Additionally, the league says the term “small cell” is misleading, since the electronic equipment can be physically large.

The California bill describes a small cell as an antenna of not more than 6 cubic feet. Associated pieces of equipment may not exceed 9 cubic feet. The cumulative amount of pole-mounted structures may not exceed 21 cubic feet. And, all the equipment, including that on the ground, may not exceed 35 cubic feet.

It may be a semantic issue, since the industry uses the term small cell to describe a cell with a small coverage area.

Schmidt added that state legislators across the country might revisit their bills in five to 10 years if the proliferation of small cell equipment on street corners becomes objectionable.

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