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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Qualcomm's bid for BWA Spectrum: What's the Strategy?

Qualcomm, a leading US based chipmaker and developer of advanced wireless technologies, announced recently that it will be participating in India's upcoming auction for Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) spectrum. In fact, Qualcomm’s participation is now officially confirmed in the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) ‘list of applicants’.  

Given that the rest of the applicants for the BWA spectrum are already operators of some merit, and that if Qualcomm is successful, it will need to tie up with local partners (per the terms of the auction), many analysts are openly wondering about the strategy driving Qualcomm’s decision to participate in the auction. Qualcomm in turn has said that if it is successful in the auctions, it intends to secure Indian partners and will co-develop its strategy with these partners in due course of time. Personally, I think Qualcomm’s partner selection as well as market-strategies will be driven by two high-level objectives.

  1. Technology licensing and equipment/chip sales: It is a well known fact that Qualcomm is a proponent of LTE; and true to its stance, Qualcomm plans on launching TD-LTE in India. Before Qualcomm’s entry, the BWA spectrum auction in India was all about WiMAX. Qualcomm and LTE cannot afford to lose one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world to a competing technology, and that could have driven its decision to participate in the auction. In its press release detailing its participation, Qualcomm noted - "By participating in India's BWA spectrum auction, Qualcomm can foster the accelerated deployment of TD-LTE". And this really, is the main aim for Qualcomm - to boost the deployment of TD-LTE. Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown notes that "This move is mainly about creating a global ecosystem around TD-LTE at 2.3GHz. China is already in the process of deploying TD-LTE, and India and Indonesia are due to allocate spectrum this year and next. If TD-LTE was adopted in three of the most populous countries in the world, it would create the opportunity for economies of scale that would benefit the entire LTE ecosystem”
  2. Value Added Services: In the past few years, Qualcomm has been making quite the foray into mobile content and services and has amassed quite an impressive portfolio of these products and services (E.g.: QChat, FloTV, Zeebo, etc.). If successful in the BWA spectrum auction, Qualcomm could individually, or through partners, use the spectrum to launch or strengthen these services in India further bolstering its revenue streams.

Qualcomm’s strategy and motives should become clearer once the winners of the BWA spectrum auction are declared. For the time being, I would not recommend that one interpret Qualcomm’s ‘lack of an articulated strategy’ as a ‘lack of strategy’. Qualcomm is a seasoned player in the wireless world and is embarking on a strategy it has long used to spur development of its favored technology: jumping in the market itself. It did so with CDMA, as the biggest example, and it was wildly successful.

  1. Qualcomm plans on launching TD-LTE in India. TD-LTE also is known as LTE TDD (Long Term Evolution - Time Division Duplex), and is part of the 3GPP specifications for next generation cellular technologies. The other variant of LTE is LTE FDD (Long Term Evolution - Frequency Division Duplex). While I am not going to go into the differences between these two variants, the important thing to note here is the fact that LTE TDD is currently used primarily only in China. LTE FDD is the ‘international’ variant of LTE that is being deployed in Europe and the Americas.
  2. TD-LTE is capable, at least theoretically, of delivering downlink connections of 100 Mbps or more; and this is significantly faster than the current generation of WiMAX.
  3. The WiMAX forum hasn’t taken lightly to Qualcomm’s bid in the BWA spectrum auction - probably because of the confusion TD-LTE’s capabilities creates in the minds of BWA spectrum auction winners, due to (2) above – and has started trash-talking TD-LTE.  Not to be outdone, Qualcomm has responded to these ‘allegations’. The war of words has begun!