When James Thompson joined Qualcomm 28 years ago, he worked as a staff engineer on 2G/3G mobile technologies where the killer app was voice.
But Qualcomm early on believed that someday data would become what everybody wanted in mobile communications. That vision partially came true with 4G networks, which brought music streaming, video, social media and popular apps such as Uber to smartphones.
Now new 5G networks have begun rolling out with the goal of taking wireless data beyond smartphones. 5G aims to create a fabric for connecting sensors, cars, security cameras and millions of other things wirelessly.
Now Qualcomm’s chief technology officer, Thompson has been at the center of company’s efforts to develop these 5G technologies.
At its core, 5G aims to deliver ultra-fast download speeds to mobile devices. It also strives to lower transmission lag times and reduce instances where the connection is lost.
The son of a finance professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thompson literally grew up on campus. He earned a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering at the university with the idea of entering academia.
But he opted for the private sector in part because he felt “there is a lot more that you can do when you are working for a company, especially a company like Qualcomm, where you have all these smart academic people yet you have money to actually build products.”
Thompson has overseen all engineering for Qualcomm’s chip design division since 2004. He was promoted to chief technology officer of the company in 2017. He is a member of the advisory board of the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering and is also a member of the council of advisers for the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.
Thompson spoke with the Union-Tribune last week about emerging 5G networks and what they might mean for future communications. Here are some excerpts.
Q: What makes 5G different from current cellular networks?
A: What was not contemplated in 4G were things other than mobile. 4G is great at bringing the Internet to smartphones or connecting a laptop. But when you have different types of services — like you want to have a trillion little Internet of Things devices connected to the network — it doesn’t really support that.
Or if you want services where you have very low latency but very high reliability such as emergency services or in a factory with a wireless Ethernet connection where you can do very low latency control (of machinery.) Any of these new businesses that go beyond smartphones were really hard to put into 4G.
Q: Does 5G bring anything new to smartphones?
A: I will start at what is being deployed now, which is a set of features that are really for smartphones. That is how the ecosystem makes money right now. It pays the bills. We made sure consumers get a benefit. That benefit is higher data rates, much higher capacity and cheaper cost per bit.
Remember what digital cellular did to voice? When I was an engineer just coming into Qualcomm, I got a mobile phone that was on a plan where it was 30 cents a minute for voice. You would call really quickly.
Now we don’t even think about how much time we are talking on our cellphones because it is so cheap and ubiquitous. It is unlimited.
So what we are trying to do with 5G mobile broadband is make it feel like you have a fiber optic cable plugged into your phone all the time, and it is almost free. You get unlimited capacity and it is awesome.
That clearly won’t happen day one. But that is what we think the promise of 5G will provide to mobile broadband users, smartphone users.
Q: When will 5G smartphones become widespread?
A: I honestly don’t know the rollout plans in San Diego. The operators — that is their thing. But I think pretty much every major phone manufacturer will be selling a 5G phone next year.
Q: Will 5G phone owners notice a performance difference?
A: It definitely depends on where you are and the 5G roll out. If you are in a 5G city where there has been a significant roll out out in 2020, the throughput is going to be much better. It will feel a lot snappier. Ultimately, the cost will be lower, but will that be true next year? That is up to somebody else. But I believe the operators are going to incentivize people.
Q: What are some of the things beyond smartphones that can benefit from 5G?
A: One is automotive. I think there is so much opportunity for safety. The world seems to be focused on autonomy, which is nice. But I think safety is where the real benefit is.
If you think about 1.2 million people around the world die in car accidents, it is a shocking number. What we are doing with 5G vehicle to vehicle communications, vehicle to infrastructure, the edge cloud. I think the combination of these things can have pretty big impacts.
There’s robotics and asset tracking, like these scooters that are on the streets everywhere. There‘s what we like to call the factory of the future that is wireless, configurable and flexible where 5G can provide services that you can’t with 4G, such as wireless Ethernet for real-time control of machinery.
I really like the smart factory example. Some of that is just being a technology geek. But it has all aspects of 5G — ultra broadband, high reliability, low latency communications and a massive number of sensors.