Qualcomm claims wireless dominance over Intel and Apple

Qualcomm is going on the offensive in its wireless business, attacking rival products from Intel and the Apple iPhones that integrate them.

A collection of new data from Ookla, the largest and most prominent internet-speed-testing service, shows that Android phones integrating Qualcomm QCOM, +0.80% modems have significantly better wireless performance than iPhones that are using Intel INTC, +0.77% modems.

Phones integrating Qualcomm modems show up to 53% faster typical download speeds and 103% faster speeds in “worst-case” scenarios where consumers are at the edge of the network, where signals are harder to find. This covers testing from more than one million consumer-initiated tests across both AT&T T, -0.32% and T-Mobile TMUS, -1.50% cellular networks.

More than simply bragging rights for geeks, these data are being promoted by Qualcomm to demonstrate its leadership in the wireless space. Today’s wireless technology focuses on 4G LTE cellular connections, but 5G technology will become available later this year and expand in a full rollout in 2019 and 2020. Qualcomm has competition for the 5G market from Intel, Huawei and possibly MediaTek, and Qualcomm wants partners to know who the favorite in the gate is.

As we move to a mobile-first society where connectivity is critical for everything from smartphones to TV services to autonomous driving and health-monitoring devices, having the best possible performance is a critical design criteria. Though we may be at the end of the 4G LTE promotional life, the coming flood of 5G offerings and devices will mark the beginning of a huge transition and opportunity for wireless technology providers globally.

With speed testing data from Ookla, Qualcomm is attempting to turn its current leadership position into a wave of partner deals and relationships in the future. It can show the market, and even end-user customers who might be selecting future phones based on wireless performance and reliability, that Snapdragon-based modems are far and away the best option today, insinuating that the same will be true for next-generation 5G products.

Wireless communications is an incredibly complicated technology segment to develop, and anyone that targets Qualcomm modems, such as Intel or Huawei, is going to struggle with an uphill battle. The 5G standard is much more complex than 4G has been, and the value of product and engineering teams that have been part of the 5G standard creation from the beginning cannot be overlooked.

Apple AAPL, +0.09% has been rumored several times to be working on its own modem technology, similar to how it has developed its own processor and graphics chips for iPhones and iPads. Even Apple sees the writing on the wall and has leaned on Intel to provide an alternative to Qualcomm modems during the extended legal feud with the modem leader.

Any mobile device that eschews Qualcomm modems because of cost or litigation concerns will likely suffer in the market because of it. Customers are becoming more sensitive to data speed and reliability as they depend on their smartphones for everything from communication to navigation, to shopping and emergency services.

Though Qualcomm is promoting the data, it was gathered and analyzed by Ookla, the largest provider of speed tests for mobile devices. These are not lab-generated results; instead, they offer a look at over a million real-world tests during the second quarter on T-Mobile and AT&T networks.

Platform differences between the tests (Android vs. iPhone) make the modem comparison less scientific, but the results are well outside any margin of error and will raise eyebrows across the spectrum of mobile users.

(Ookla could not compare Qualcomm against Intel modems on iPhones exclusively, as the number of unlocked iPhones on AT&T and T-Mobile networks is very small, skewing the reliability of the data.)

Against the latest Apple iPhone X that integrates an Intel cellular modem, the Android phones using Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 845 mobile chip that includes the company’s own modem saw 53% faster typical downloads, 103% faster worst-case downloads, and 32% lower typical latency. This means movies stream without interruption, applications load faster, and phone connectivity is more reliable on the Qualcomm-powered devices.

Qualcomm also announced a breakthrough in the integration of 5G technology in mobile devices, courtesy of a mmWave (millimeter wave) module small enough to design for smartphones. These modules allow high-frequency 5G signals to be used on phone-sized devices that were previously thought impossible to integrate.

Because a high-frequency signal can be blocked and distorted by something as simple as a human hand, the antennas for this variant of 5G need to be designed differently than any generation before. Most in the industry believed it would be a long time before we saw integration of it in small form factor devices due to engineering requirements for materials, thermals, power and size.

These 5G modules are already shipping to device customers and we will likely see them used in the first 5G-capable smartphones in late 2018 or early 2019.

Qualcomm has a history of mobile development and leadership not just in wireless but also in processors, automotive systems, and the coming build out of the internet of things (IoT). The company clearly needs to show growth in both its core markets and in adjacent spaces, as it proves to investors that it will survive without Broadcom and possibly without NXP if that deal falls through.

Maintaining leadership in wireless, and possibly taking back some of the deals it lost to upstart modems from competitors, thanks to its significant lead in the move to 5G, is an important step for the stability of Qualcomm.

Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, and the owner of PC Perspective. Follow him on Twitter @ryanshrout.

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