Podcast: The Promise of 5G, With Susie Armstrong

March 21, 2022

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Technology is rapidly developing across many sectors—and that is especially true with wireless technologies. 5G phones give consumers better, stronger, faster service and more capacity to download. But 5G goes beyond phones, it provides great innovative capacity for businesses. Rob and Jackie sat down with Susie Armstrong, senior vice president for engineering at QUALCOMM, to discuss what makes 5G unique and how it impacts smart factories, healthcare, and more.




Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman, a head development at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: This podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF, from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today we’re going to talk about a newish technology, but a really cool one, and that’s 5G, or fifth generation mobile network.

Jackie Whisman: There’s really no one better to talk about this subject than our guest. Susie Armstrong is senior vice president for engineering at QUALCOMM. She was a pioneer in bringing internet protocols to the cellular industry, resulting in the first web surfing on a cellular phone in 1997. In addition to her work on QUALCOMM’s inventions and new technologies, she has worked extensively with base station makers, carriers, phone, and device makers around the world to bring those technologies to market. Welcome, Susie.

Susie Armstrong: Thank you, Jackie. Thank you, Rob. It’s an honor to be here on the podcast, and I’m looking forward to talking about one of my favorite topics, which is 5G.

Jackie Whisman: Well, tell us a little bit about QUALCOMM. Are you the longest serving employee?

Susie Armstrong: I’m not the longest serving employee, probably by a long shot, although I’ve been here almost 28 years. I joined when we were working on CDMA, the new cellular technology that we really struggled to show the world that it worked and that it made tremendous sense, and from there, I worked in the software group. I led the software team, did the early work on the internet protocols, and I led the group of engineers that integrates our products worldwide into customer devices. Then in 2015, I joined the policy group, bringing that engineering focus to the policy work.

Jackie Whisman: That’s why we like you so much because you can talk about both. It’s rare. What’s QUALCOMM’s role in 5G?

Susie Armstrong: QUALCOMM’s, role in 5G, everybody has their posters up that they’re instrumental in 5G, and to a large extent, that is true. To deploy any sort of new technology, you’ve got to have the researchers, you’ve got to have the developers. You’ve got to have the semiconductor people to bring that alive, and you’ve got to have the carriers and such to deploy it, you’ve got to have the use cases. But QUALCOMM’s role in 5G was largely in doing that, probably, five to 10 years’ worth of upfront research and advanced development that yields the standards for 5G, the wireless standards for 5G, and then bringing that innovation to life, and those standards to life, in the form of the semiconductors that drive 5G. So without QUALCOMM, you don’t really have the ability to deploy 5G because you don’t really have 5G without that R&D that goes into it.

Rob Atkinson: So yeah, I certainly read a lot about 5G. We’ve written a lot about 5G at ITIF, but I want to ask a really simple question, which is actually one I don’t know the answer to. How much of the development from four to five, how much of that was, in sort of rough percentage terms, was really in the chip development? In other words, 5G is, and we’ll talk about that a little bit more, is so much better, it’s faster, lower latency, all these great things about it. Is that largely just because the chips have gotten so much better, or is there a lot more to it like software development and other things?

Susie Armstrong: There’s a tremendous amount more to it, even beyond the semiconductors. I would bring you back to that upfront R&D and taking those ideas and working with global standards organizations to standardize them. When you have any sort of a communications technology, one side has to talk to the other. So what my husband says Susie loves to do is, “Make bits go from here to there.” So, you’ve got standards that designate that, so those standards in turn are just a stack of paper, just a stack of PDFs, unless you bring them to life in a semiconductor in the software that drives it. So you can’t really have one without the other.

Now certainly the advances in semiconductor development have been really instrumental in utilizing 5G. In your phone, you need a very small, very power efficient device to be able to have the battery life that you have and to drive these kinds of things. But the 5G itself is really a set of innovations, a set of standards, and brought to life by and commercialized in semiconductors. Then probably the 10 million... Last I checked, there were 10 million lines of code in one of our software builds that actually drive that semiconductor.

Rob Atkinson: Wow, that’s amazing. Maybe for listeners, you could just sort explain why should I get a 5G phone compared to a 4G? What is 5G going to give people? Not so much people, but the overall wireless ecosystem compared to 4G?

Susie Armstrong: Well, from a consumer point of view, getting a 5G phone gives you better, stronger, faster, gives you more capacity, things download noticeably faster, et cetera. But what we are really excited about, and what the industry is excited about, and what I think our audience should be excited about, is what these innovations bring beyond consumer devices, what they bring to smart factories, and healthcare, and the whole digital transformation, because it’s not until... For example, it wasn’t until 4G where you had enough data speeds and you had position and location. Those two things came together and created rideshare and interactive maps and such. In turn, 5G, way beyond your phone, with that kind of capacity, that kind of response time, and that kind of download speeds are instrumental in things like smart factories and real-time automotive responses, smart intersections, where you can tell in real-time that it’s a kid that ran into the street rather than a ball rolling in the street.

So while the 5G phones are fun because you can download things very quickly, I think the real promise of 5G, and 6G beyond it, is the work on other parts of the digital transformation in these other industries that we don’t normally think of as being... We think of our phones, right? We think of what these technologies can do for people, rather than what they can do for connecting other devices in other industries.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. So this is sort of what people call M2M, machine-to-machine. The reason for that is partly because of low latencies, and what latency is, is between the time a bit travels, and you want it to be... If we had high latency here, you would have a hard time hearing me because I wouldn’t quite come across, there’d be gaps. So low latency, but then also isn’t it also that just you can have just many, many more cells talking to one another, many more devices, sorry, I should say devices, talking with another? Isn’t that part of it as well?

Susie Armstrong: It’s a huge part of it, and that’s a part of every generation of cell phone technology that the consumer doesn’t really see, is spectrum is a fixed resource, and there’s only so much spectrum available in the world. Some of it is not perfectly suited for things like cellular communications. So one of the advances in 5G, and one of the things that we are very proud of at QUALCOMM, is being able to utilize millimeter wave, bands of spectrum that normally weren’t considered optimal for cellular communications. With enough smart engineers and researchers, you can come up with techniques that can actually utilize things like millimeter wave, and then you can expand how many bits, if you will, you can squeeze into that spectrum. So that’s been a huge part of the work on 5G, is just that, what we call, capacity is. If you’re going to have better, stronger, faster, lower latency, you’ve got to figure out ways to squeeze, as I say, squeeze more bits into this limited resource called spectrum.

Jackie Whisman: What’s one of the most exciting, or maybe the most exciting development you see from 5G? Like smart factories, smart cities, just kind of beyond the personal cell phone.

Susie Armstrong: For me personally, it’s probably, because I haven’t spent much time in factories, it’s probably the smart cities, or perhaps more specifically, smart communities. When I look at some of the safety applications that can come out of 5G, I just gave an example of 5G combined with AI. Our chips, for example, run AI processors right on the chip. Things like being able to have smart intersections that can discern what is rolling out in front of you, but also applying that to, for example, being able to have crop dusters sense, and tractors sense, when a crop needs fertilizer, or drones. I think there’s a lot of drone use right now in fire detection, as well.

So having 5G transform those kinds of industries really excites me in terms of the safety that it can provide, because there’s a lot of discussion, rightfully so, on, “Is the whole digital transformation going to put us all out of a job?”, but I look at it more of the digital transformation in 5G putting us out of jobs that are really dangerous. Firefighters going in... I’m in California and the West Coast has a terrible wildfire problem. So some of these techniques and these technologies applied to sensing situations where you don’t need to then send in human beings into a dicey situation, I think, is really exciting.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. We are much more, I guess, optimistic about the employment situation than some of the pessimists are. We’ve gone through much bigger transformations. Going from agriculture to manufacturing, it all worked out. So we don’t believe that there’d really be problems, especially if the government helps people make transitions, but you mentioned the transportation one and it really reminds me. I don’t think people... Because we’ve, frankly, all grown up in a world that, to use a lack of a better term, is a stupid world. In other words, we don’t know what’s going on and we don’t know how many people got sick yesterday. We set traffic lights at a certain thing. We don’t know air pollution in certain areas. We just really don’t know a lot.

To me, 5G combined with sensors really allows the world to come to life, in a way. It always drives me crazy when I drive a car, if I’m in my car, which I don’t do very much because I ride my bike, but late at night and I’m stopped at a stoplight. There’s no cars coming in any direction, why can’t this traffic light be smart? “I’m here, no one else. Turn green.” I think there’s so many examples like that, that we just take for granted because they’ve always been that way. It seems to me that’s a big part of the promise, is just to make things more intelligent, easier for people to live with.

Susie Armstrong: Yeah. Completely agree. That’s what’s exciting, as well. It’s not that it’s going to take jobs or ban you from riding your bicycle. It’s going to make riding your bicycle easier and more efficient, which has a tremendous number of side benefits in terms of environmental, et cetera. I love the fact that you ride your bicycle.

Rob Atkinson: One of the things they’re using wireless for in Denmark, I believe, I think it’s in Copenhagen, one city over there, the bicycles have sensors on the runner and they trigger the lights, so they give a little bit of favoritism to the bicycles. A little bit of nudge, “Hey, if you’re riding your bike, you’re going to have a better experience with your traffic lights. You’ll get to work faster.” You can say, “Oh, I like that or I don’t like that,” but if you like bikes and want people on them, that’s a pretty cool technology.

Susie Armstrong: Yeah, and I think that’s a wonderful point. I think people will say, “Well, we’ve got that now. What’s 5G going to be able to add, and then 6G beyond that?”, but I think you get those kinds of things at scale. You get them at scale and you get them really intelligent. The other thing that we’re really excited about is this kind of juxtaposition of wireless technologies and artificial intelligence, because then that sensor in Denmark that’s turning the lights can actually determine that you’re a bicycle and not a dog that ran into the road. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Going back over my very long career in this industry, in many ways you build it and they will come. QUALCOMM and these companies who do this kind of upfront research, even the first connecting your phone to the internet, we thought it was pretty cool, but we weren’t sure what the heck you were going to do with that. We surfed the net on this little tiny one inch in diameter screen, but you build it and it will come. Cell assisted GPS for position location, this kind of capacity, this kind of latency, this kind of download speeds. There’s so many clever people out there when given that kind of capacity, they come and they create things that you could never imagine when we’re sitting here right now, talking about this technology. So I’m not only really excited about smart cities and safety and such, I’m really excited about, “What are people going to do with this that I haven’t even thought of?”

Rob Atkinson: There’s a great line. I can’t remember who said it, but it was, “We overestimate the promise of technology in the short run, and we underestimate it in the long run.” I think that, to me, is pretty true, because we’re often like, “Oh, 5G is going to be [inaudible 00:14:56]”. It takes a while. You got to develop the platform, people got to get used to it, they got to write things. It takes longer than people think, but because this is a platform that QUALCOMM is part of, that ecosystem with Apple and Samsung and everybody else, it does has become exactly as you said, something where people are just like, “Wow, I’m going to try this thing. I never thought of it.” So you can’t even predict what all the different benefits are going to be.

Susie Armstrong: Yeah, and the other thing that, just to bring it to a personal level, that I love about 5G, and these technologies, and working on them, a number of years ago I did a 101 Seconds of what it’s like to launch a device. One thing I love is engineering and 5G, these things become the great “pulling together” of all these great minds. It doesn’t matter if you’re Einstein, one person cannot do what we are seeing today with 5G.

You were surprised when I mentioned the 10 million lines of code that drive our semiconductors. When you think of the fact that those software engineers have to get together with the hardware engineers, have to get together with the people at the fab who is actually manufacturing that semiconductor, who are implementing the standards that were laid out by all these researchers, and then you pull in the infrastructure manufacturers. So tens of thousands of people all have to coordinate to come together to make a call, or to call Uber, or make a call, or send data on a phone, and that’s a staggering feat of human cooperation. I think that’s just wonderful and makes me feel like there’s hope for the world.

Rob Atkinson:   Whenever I talk to engineers, I feel like there’s hope for the world. I’m serious about that. My son’s a computer scientist, and when I talk to him, I feel like there’s hope for the world. I can’t resist this one dig, and then I’ll turn it over to Jackie, but we hear a lot now in Washington, particularly among some of the progressives, that big companies can’t innovate, it’s only the small companies. But what you talked about is a lot of big companies getting together, whether they’re equipment makers, whether they’re chip makers, whether they’re what you’re doing, which is chips and software and standards, it’s a big, big challenge of coordination. You have to have companies with real technical capabilities and scale. I’m not saying that small companies don’t play a role in that, but big companies play a critical role in this whole development.

Susie Armstrong: I think that’s a really astute point. When I started with QUALCOMM, they were a small company, and we are a very large company now, but we act... It’s not just QUALCOMM. I think there’s so much innovation that happens in big companies, and I love startups and I love small companies, they bring wonderful ideas, but if you look at why they usually are anxious to get acquired is it takes thousands, tens of thousands of people to bring this technology, to develop it at scale, and to commercialize and bring it, it’s... This kind of technology is never something that can be done by one, two, three, four, five people, and that’s what a lot of wonderful startups are aware of. So in some ways, when a startup gets acquired, people tend to make a lot of money, so that’s one motivation. But if you talk to these founders, they love getting acquired by a company that has scale to take those ideas all the way to usability, because that takes a lot of resources, that takes a lot of coordination, and that takes, frankly, a lot of money.

Rob Atkinson: That’s a great point because you hear there’s a bill in the Senate now that we’ve commented on, which would essentially make it almost impossible for big technology companies to acquire startups. I used the example in Google, where there was a little company, a startup company, that figured out how to take the NASA maps and be able to go down and have the map expand. It was a real innovation, and they thought it would take them 20 years to map every street in America and it would cost $200 a year. They happened to be located down the block from Sergey Brin and they had lunch with him, the CEO of Google, the founder, and Google said, “Yeah, we’ll acquire you.” About two years later, every street was mapped in the US for free. So they looked at that, “This is to take our incredible innovation and scale it widely, cheaply, effectively,” and then the owners, they made a lot of money and they went on and started another company.

Susie Armstrong: I think that’s a really good example. I think policymakers need to be very, very cognizant of those kinds of facts. People in policy are wonderful. They’re trying to do the right thing to make the US keep its leadership edge and continue to be innovative, but there are unintended consequences to some of these policies that you go into without looking carefully enough at the implications. Acquiring a small business and the bills that look at that, you just hope that they talk to small businesses, small technology businesses, before they write that bill, because my bet is you take any small technology business and they are very anxious. In order to get their technology to market and to get it deployed at scale, they are probably very anxious to be acquired. It’s not a “get rich quick” kind of thing. Startups, those people are so passionate about that technology, and to be able to, again, they want to see it in people’s hands, or in smart cities, or in devices, or in cars. I really hope that we can do something to make sure that that happens, otherwise it dies on the vine.

Jackie Whisman: How much is the US rollout of 5G limited by supply chain issues?

Susie Armstrong: So, I’d say the 5G rollout itself, because it’s driven by the availability of cellular infrastructure, not necessarily huge volumes of semiconductors, I don’t think it’s directly been affected itself. Now, certainly the world has seen issues with supply chain in semiconductors for automobiles, also cell phones, other kinds of devices. Some of that is because of COVID and lack of forecasting, and the fact that we’re all doing work from home and schooling from home and utilizing these devices more, and some of it comes from looking ahead to the digital transformation. So forecasting for semiconductor supply is a very complex multiyear situation. You’re launching a chip, for example, and you want to get it manufactured. That’s an 18-month process, and so forecasting takes a long time and you have to look way far in advance at what your needs are. So I think that’s where COVID really hit the auto industry and the cell phone industry, semiconductor supply is not necessarily a major component in the actual deployment of 5G, or at least I haven’t seen it that way.

Rob Atkinson: Susie, so I guess maybe just one last quick question, because we need to wrap up. One minute on what is 6G? How is that going to be better than 5G?

Susie Armstrong: So 6G, if you look at the raw definition, 6G is also more capacity, better, stronger, faster, lower latency.

Rob Atkinson: Okay.

Susie Armstrong: But 6G to QUALCOMM, and we, of course, are working on 6G, again, from a technical point of view, there’s a lot of additional work building on 5G’s millimeter wave technology to get more capacity out of this limited spectrum. From a usage point of view, what we are really excited about is with that kind of latency response time, that low of response time and those kinds of speeds and that kind of capacity, coming together with artificial intelligence and human interfaces. Human computer interfaces, I think, is one of the really interesting areas that 6G is going to provide us. Sure, it’ll provide us... I don’t know how much faster you can download a movie to your phone, but I see that as the use cases, but beyond the use cases, the user interfaces.

For example, it takes a lot of processing power, it takes a lot of AI, it takes a lot of data to have interfaces that look at your eye motion in order to make your device do something, or your hand waving to make your device do something. I think, to our earlier point, I think as you get those kinds of incredible 6G speeds in capacity combined with AI, you can start to do some really, really interesting things in user interfaces that actually help people tremendously, because we all have our own gripes about human computer interfaces. I think that’s what 6G could end up providing us, even beyond what 5G is for factories and these other kinds of devices.

Rob Atkinson: Speaking of that, my daughter and I went for the first time to the local Amazon Fresh store here up in Bethesda. It’s like 12G, I’m convinced. It was that super smartcard, it knew that I put peaches in. It was unbelievable. So I’m not really kidding, it was so amazing. My daughter and I were both mind blown, like, “This is the greatest thing ever,” but it’s the same kind of technology. It’s wireless. It’s not maybe 5G, but it’s wireless, it’s sensors, it’s AI, I’m sure. So our patron saint at ITIF is Joseph Schumpeter, the famous innovation economist. He had a great quote where he said, “Innovation is like an uncharted sea.” In other words, you never ever chart the entire sea, and 6G is a good example of that. It’s going to be cool and there’ll be all sorts of new things with it. So Susie, that was really a great conversation and I learned so much. Thank you for joining us.

Susie Armstrong: Thank you. It was an honor to talk to you and it’s great to actually be on the podcast. Thank you so much.

Jackie Whisman: That’s it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, ITIF.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: We have more episode and great guests lined up. New episodes drop every other Monday, so we hope you’ll continue to tune in.

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Podcast: The Promise of 5G, With Susie Armstrong