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Interview with Sunil Lalvani, Vice-President Qualcomm Technologies and President, Qualcomm India

May 18, 2016
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Qualcomm India, part of the global technology major Qualcomm Inc., has committed itself to drive the government’s Digital India initiative. It plans to foster innovation in the country by providing promising technology start-ups with financial, marketing, technological and business support, and has set aside $150 million for the purpose. Sunil Lalvani, vice-president, Qualcomm Technologies, and president, Qualcomm India, talks about the company’s role in Digital India, the company’s strategies and plans for the Indian market, and current and upcoming trends in the sector. Excerpts... 

What are your views on the Digital India initiative? What role is Qualcomm playing in supporting it?

We, at Qualcomm, are closely associated with the Indian government to drive Digital India. Let me explain the role that Qualcomm can play in this initiative. While fixed line broadband penetration in the country is growing, it is always going to be a challenge in terrain like India. Therefore, wireless broadband is the way forward. From a wireless technology perspective, Qualcomm is one of the industry leaders. We work with telecom operators for technologies such as 3G, 4G and the roadmap to 5G, and for building on technologies like carrier aggregation onto 4G networks. This is our telecom carrier engagement strategy. Our objective is to increase connectivity, whether through 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, across India so that more and more users can access these services on their phones, tablets, wearable devices, etc.

The other aspect of our engagement is enabling technology on the chipsets that are used on smartphones, tablets, etc. The growth of smartphones in India has a direct impact on the country’s GDP as well. We are evaluating ways to work with the government, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and operators to ensure that Qualcomm’s latest technology on chipsets can be brought into the country. For instance, with the price delta between 3G- and 4G-enabled handsets having narrowed significantly, a 2G or a feature-phone user looking for an upgraded phone is more likely to choose a 4G device. For the user, this means getting faster throughput on the device, which, in turn, gives better access to Digital India and some of the services that the government is rolling out under it. Our technology can enable better throughput on a device or a carrier network and assist the Digital India initiative.

What kind of a partnership has Qualcomm India forged in India with the government and industry players?

We predominantly work with four entities to drive Digital India. The first and foremost is the government. We have been talking with the government about the policy framework related to technology evolution, roadmaps, etc. The second key element of the ecosystem we work with is OEMs. We work with almost all Indian, Chinese and global OEMs. We offer them technology features that can help them differentiate their phones. We have received a very quick and good response from Indian and Chinese OEMs in particular for these new technologies. The third part of the ecosystem that we work with is operators. Spectrum availability in India is still a bit constrained. We work with operators to fuel and drive technologies such as carrier aggregation so that a better throughput can be provided to consumers. Lastly, we work with a number of e-commerce and offline players. We educate consumers about the technologies we offer and how a particular solution is going to help them. We are seeing that smartphones are becoming an inherent part of people’s lives. A lot of people have started using their smartphone devices for mobile banking. This necessitates a high level of security on one’s device.

Qualcomm has developed chipsets that use 3D biometrics to unlock a person’s phone, using ultrasound technologies. This is a huge evolution in terms of technology. In India, as more and more people do financial transactions using their smartphones, this feature will become a key differentiator on a smartphone device.

Where does the company stand in terms of designing and manufacturing your products in India?

We already have a fairly large engineering presence in India spread across Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. While the hardware engineering team is based in Bengaluru, the software, wireless and technology solution teams are spread across Hyderabad and Chennai. We design and test some of our technology solutions in India. The eventual manufacturing of the chipset is done through third-party vendors located outside India. We don’t do any manufacturing, but the technology and patents are ours.

What are some of the recent contracts secured by Qualcomm?

Our latest chipset is the Snapdragon 820 for which we received a fantastic response at the Mobile World Congress 2016. Some of the biggest brands such as LG, Samsung and Xiaomi LeEco have shown interest in it. We will have to wait and watch as to which OEMs bring the technology to India. In fact, Xiaomi’s latest phone, the Mi5, comes with the Snapdragon 820 chipset.

How has India progressed in terms of the 4G ecosystem? What is your outlook for this segment for the next few years?

The progress made by India on 4G in the past six to eight months is quite encouraging. A number of operators are joining hands and the sector is witnessing some mergers and acquisitions. Further, the government policies are also encouraging. What has helped carriers to rapidly roll out their 4G networks is the fact that OEMs have reduced their prices. As I mentioned earlier, the price differential between 4G and 3G devices has narrowed down. As more and more users opt for 4G-enabled devices and operators roll out 4G networks, user experience will go up a few notches. As the 4G experience improves, a lot more data is going to be consumed on these networks. The timing for operators to expand their 4G networks is just right.

When do you see data surpassing the voice market in India?

India is still a largely voice-dominated country. But if you analyse some of the leading operators and their revenue growth in the last few quarters, you will see how data traffic has increased quarter on quarter. It is a good sign and the trend is going to continue. While it is difficult to say by when data will overtake voice, technologies such as 4G and voice over LTE (VoLTE) are going to drive a superior experience for users. Operators that build relevant content and offer that on 4G are the ones that will stand to benefit.

What are your views on VoLTE? What is the progress on that front?

VoLTE has been tested and commercially rolled out in certain markets. From the India perspective, a couple of operators are planning to bring in VoLTE. The technology can prove to be a key differentiator in terms of quality of service as it offers a superior experience for consumers. We have to watch how operators roll it out as a service and the experience from a consumer perspective.

What are the key challenges faced by Qualcomm? How does the company plan to address them?

Qualcomm has faced challenges not so much from an operational perspective as from an ecosystem perspective. We are trying to help foster innovation in India through our initiatives such as Design in India. We would now like to see how the manufacture ecosystem scales up with component-level supply. I believe that some of the component ecosystem needs to move to India instead of being imported from other markets. While setting up an entire fabrication unit requires large capex and may take a little longer to come up, some basic components can still be manufactured in India and be used by Indian OEMs. Once this happens, you will find the cost structure going down. The recent budget announcements around a variable duty structure for semi-knocked-down imports, completely imported, and component-level imports is a step in the right direction.

Where does the Indian market feature in Qualcomm’s global strategy and what are your expectations from the Indian business?

We have a large engineering presence in India and this is one of the key markets for Qualcomm globally. Our Design in India initiative and the $150 million investment announced by our executive chairman is testimony to the importance of India. I think the engagement that we had with the Government of India is quite encouraging. Qualcomm India sits very high on the priority list of Qualcomm Inc. There are two reasons for this. One is the immense talent pool and engineering capabilities that we have in the country and two, the market potential in terms of devices, which offers huge opportunities. Qualcomm is extremely bullish on India.

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