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6 December 2022

Former Qualcomm CEO joins ARM board, pushes XCOM’s spectrum advances

Mobile processor IP giant ARM may be engaged in a legal battle with Qualcomm, one of its largest customers, but that has not stopped it appointing Qualcomm’s former CEO, Paul Jacobs, to its board of directors, along with former Intel executive Rose Schooler.

Jacobs was Qualcomm’s CEO from 2005 to 2014 and then executive chairman until 2018, when he left to explore the possibility of a buy-out of the firm, when it was being stalked by Broadcom in a hostile takeover bid that subsequently failed. Jacobs now heads up a start-up, XCOM Labs, and is on the boards of several other innovative semiconductor companies in the wireless field, such as EdgeQ.

Jacobs said he knows ARM well because it was a supplier for many years, to Qualcomm and now to XCOM, and his deep experience will help the UK-based, Softbank-owned firm prepare for its delayed IPO, which is slated to take place in the second half of next year.

In an interview with the San Diego Tribune, Jacobs refused to comment on the litigation between the ARM and Qualcomm, which centers on IP licensing agreements that Qualcomm took over when it acquired processor maker Nuvia. Jacobs said he was not a large Qualcomm shareholder but added: “I would just say I have a very good relationship with the people at Qualcomm, too. So, let’s leave it at that.”

Stacy Rasgon, a financial analyst at Bernstein Research, echoed the confusion that many feel about ARM filing suit against such a big customer. “If ARM goes public, they need to tell a story that is not smartphone-based,” he said. “They need to tell a story where they have all these other end markets. And Qualcomm is one of the largest advocates for using ARM in other high-value applications.” Qualcomm has been seeking to diversify its business for years now, and has scored successes in automotive, in particular, and is now targeting network infrastructure and laptops.

Jacobs also spoke publicly recently about his own company, XCOM, which has mainly been focusing on support for extended reality (XR). But at a recent Globalstar investor day, Jacobs had a new claim for XCOM, saying the firm’s technology “can make 10 MHz of spectrum look like 50 MHz, enabling greater data throughput”.

Almost two years ago, Globalstar announced a strategic alliance” with XCOM that Jacobs said would result in “significant capacity gains for dense deployments of greater than 4x compared to existing solutions with gains scaling even further up as additional hardware is deployed”. The idea was to enable Globalstar to carry traffic in its Band 53 spectrum in 2.4 GHz, which would previously have required far wider channels than this band-plan allows. Globalstar’s spectrum is licensed but sits adjacent to the unlicensed band used by WiFi and others.

XCOM’s most recent announcements concerned an XR platform that combined edge, high frequency spectrum and VR headsets to allow users to “move freely, simultaneously and seamlessly through a highly detailed photorealistic interactive digital environment”.

But its key focus has been, naturally given its Qualcomm roots, on any application that needs very efficient spectrum usage. It has developed 5G RAN technology to use sub-6 GHz spectrum optimally, claiming this supports “5-10x gains for download and upload without changes to phones or standards”.

XCOM was co-founded with two other former senior Qualcomm executives, Derek Aberle – the firm’s president until the end of 2017, and Matt Grob, the EVP of technology who left in May 2018. It went on to acquire M87, another networking start-up led by former T-Mobile executive Cole Brodman, and focused on device-to-device mesh network technology.

Jacobs has described the firm’s mission as giving “everyone’s phones the ability to route traffic like a cell tower”. In an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune when the company was founded, the three founders said they would target 5G and IoT applications, and they particularly highlighted solutions which enable large amounts of compute processing power to be supported at device level, to reduce the volumes of data which need to be sent to the cloud (or even the edge cloud) to be processed.

This has been a significant theme at Qualcomm in recent years. Clearly, it is in the interest of a device chipmaker to increase the capabilities of those devices, to boost their value, rather than allow them to become dumb objects hanging off a smart cloud.

Qualcomm’s high end processor/modem combinations have helped the smartphone turn into a full computer, and the IoT, especially applications which require low latency or high security, improves the argument for placing strong resources in the hands of the user. Qualcomm has demonstrated machine learning, machine vision and other AI-related processes that previously required server power, on its Snapdragon chips. So XCOM may well be thinking along similar lines.