Qualcomm is breaking the smart city code: Lee

Leonard Lee

Qualcomm hosted its third Smart Cities Accelerate event Sept. 28 at their corporate headquarters in San Diego, California. On an unusually cloudy day, hundreds of attendees congregated outside for registration and a pre-event breakfast.

The conference promised to be packed with exciting updates on Qualcomm’s progress with its IoT (Internet of Things) business and smart city ambitions. The IoT has become growing part of Qualcomm’s business which grew 83% year over year to a sizable $1.4 billion in Q3 of 2021.  


Catalyze Ecosystem Value Creation  

It wouldn’t be a Qualcomm event without plenty of mentions about technology and connectivity, in particular 5G. Smart Cities Accelerate 2021 was no exception, but the predominant theme for this symposium was ecosystem. According to Qualcomm CEO Cristano Amon the company’s long experience building a vibrant ecosystem for the mobile wireless industry around its cellular technologies and semiconductor products could be the game changer for itself and the over 400 Smart Cities Accelerator program members looking to tackle the smart city opportunity.

As most in the IoT game will attest, the smart city nut is a tough one to crack, especially in the U.S. where municipal government funding models and politics are not conducive to large digital modernization projects. Refreshingly, the leading edge of Qualcomm’s ecosystem play for smart city IoT is not technology. It starts with funding, which is probably why Cristano was joined on stage by LA Lakers legend  Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Jim Reynolds of JLC Infrastructure for the event’s keynote panel.

Qualcomm is partnering with JLC Infrastructure to arrange the public/private financing of strategic smart city projects. Their investments aim on fostering equitable access to city services through digital transformation and connectivity which have been vital for remote learning during the pandemic especially in underserved communities.

 Qualcomm is also partnering on the front end with IGNITE CITIES to work with cities across the US in structuring economically sustainable and scalable smart city initiatives that are impactful and compelling for city governments and their residents.

Eating Your Own IoT Dog Food

Since the inception of their Smart Cities Accelerator program in 2019, Qualcomm has been busy piloting smart applications and operating production smart spaces throughout its corporate campus in San Diego. As Sanjeet Pandit, Head of Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program, put it, the company is “eating its own IoT dog food.”

Qualcomm is constantly using its campuses, building and facilities as test beds for its R&D and development of reference designs for smartphones, small cells, XR HMDs, drones and much more. Qualcomm has been applying a similar approach to develop smart building and smart city solution blueprints and reference designs through its Smart Cities Accelerator Program and realizing hard and soft benefits.  

The company showcased demos for security, energy management, lighting control, smart parking, and pedestrian and vehicular traffic management at the event.

This approach could work well for Qualcomm since they have deep experience as an ecosystem catalyst. They have been designing and providing the essential technologies for the macro-scale systems that are the basis of our mobile wireless networks and mobile computing for decades. In many ways, a smart city is one such macro system.

For smart city IoT, catalyzing the ecosystem entails collaborating and technically aligning with technology and OEM partners that the Smart Cities Accelerator Program has mustered together in developing assets and tools to rapidly design and cost-effectively implement and operate smart city solutions.

Portfolio Sell Through of Chips and Connectivity

Qualcomm continues to work the front end of larger smart city deals to create what Pandit and his team expect will be a healthy pipeline of demand for smart devices that contain Qualcomm chips. Of course, these devices would connect to the cloud through one of a wide range of connectivity modalities that Qualcomm supports with its expansive portfolio of wireless technologies.

While Qualcomm is well known for 5G and its Snapdragon line of processors that power smartphones around the world, the company is also a leader in numerous technologies relevant for the IoT such as AI, modem-RF systems, codecs, digital signal processing, power efficiency management, as well as vision, media, and audio tech.

This means that Qualcomm’s opportunities in the smart city market transcend the selling of a modem chip here or a Snapdragon chip there. There is a broader portfolio of Qualcomm technologies that map into each of the thirty smart city solutions. There are also synergies with their automotive 5G, and smart vehicle technologies given transportation is a major element of any city’s service and infrastructure portfolio.

With its mobile heritage, the Qualcomm technology and product portfolio is well positioned for constrained endpoint computing environments and edge applications thanks to their low-power DNA. Moreover, the company has an origin story in IoT with Omnitracs and the automotive telematics solution that it offers today.  

A great example of Qualcomm’s IoT suitability is their acclaimed drone reference design centered around the Snapdragon 801 processor that currently powers the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. As Dev Singh, general manager  of robotics at Qualcomm, put it, “It is the ultimate example of beyond-line-of-sight operation of an aerial drone.”

Qualcomm is currently working with Israeli drone specialists, FlightOps.io, in advancing their platform for autonomous delivery and survey for eCommerce, emergency response, and smart city security applications with Qualcomm’s AI and 5G technologies.

A Single Pane of Glass for IoT Value

The first stage of IoT value is visibility. Ideally, that visibility is presented through a manageable single pane of glass. This is exactly what Ashok Tipirneni, Head of Smart Cities Product Management, presented in an exclusive walkthrough of Qualcomm’s newly announced IoT Services Suite 2.0 platform for industry analysts.

While it may seem like Qualcomm is getting into the IoT platform game, they are not. IoT Services Suite 2.0 is based on Zyter SmartSpaces, one of Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program partners. Despite what some might think, Qualcomm is not getting into the business of hosting private networks either.

So, what does this apparent full-stack smart city IoT approach mean? My take is that Qualcomm sees the necessity of taking on the roles of architect and program manager on top of the enabling role that it has traditionally played as a technological catalyst to bring the commercial, technological, and solution delivery pictures together. As Cristano Amon stated in the keynote panel, Qualcomm needs to be the CTO for mayors who Jim Reynolds characterized as CEOs of cities. 

Yes, it is a different approach than what Qualcomm has taken in the past. It is a different business model. It’s also a clear recognition on the part of Qualcomm that the technology is not enough to move the modernization of our cities.

Despite what one might assume, Qualcomm’s ecosystem philosophy is open. As Sanjeet Pandit explained to neXt Curve, he recognizes that cities are heterogenous environments comprised of a diverse set of technologies old and new. To succeed, Qualcomm needs to integrate and interoperate with competing and legacy technologies. At the same time, they will need to engage with best-of-breed technology partners, service providers, and technologies that best fit the specifics and needs of each city.

Now, Time for Execution

Though Qualcomm has managed to gain significant commercial and government interest in their value-focused approach to smart city modernization, the company’s IoT technology portfolio, and the applications and delivery capabilities that its Smart Cities Accelerator Program partners bring to the table, success depends on execution and experience.

Smart city initiatives have languished in what is generally the classic IoT proof of concept  malaise. The ability to quickly architect and implement bold, valuable solutions with cost effective simplicity will be essential for Qualcomm and its Smart Cities Accelerator Program partners to breach the barriers to adoption and transformation that have stymied smart city initiatives for years.

Fortunately for Qualcomm, IoT is not a new game. This fact may matter as it seeks to break the smart city code.

Leonard Lee is the founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on Information and Communication industry and technology research. He has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/leonard-lee-nextcurve