Q&A: Broadcom’s Henry Samueli Discusses Wearables, Ultra HD and More Ahead of CES 2014

Ahead of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month, Broadcom hosted a media event in San Francisco to preview some of the technologies and trends that it predicts to be standouts in 2014. The event, dubbed “Geek Peek,” was headlined by Broadcom Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Technical Officer Henry Samueli.

As the visionary behind Broadcom’s research and development activities and a key leader of the company’s engineering and product road map, Samueli has a unique perspective on what will power tomorrow’s most interesting products and trends — and how Broadcom’s strengths play into those key areas.

Connecting Everything Infographic

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In this edited Q&A, Samueli touches on the main themes of the “Geek Peek” and gives industry-watchers a look at what he  sees as the top trends for CES 2014 and beyond — such as how the Internet of Things will spawn a new generation of tech entrepreneurs, how Ultra HD will make its way into living rooms or how in-car connectivity will change our on-the-road experiences.


Q: There’s a lot of excitement about the Internet of Things (IoT) but little clarity on how it will play out. Do you expect the IoT to be more about consumer wearables or infrastructure for carriers and enterprises?

Samueli: The Internet of Things is extremely broad and extremely long-term, not something that plays out for two or three years and then we’re done with it. It’s going to last for decades.

It’s all about connectivity and sensors. As we invent more creative sensors and attach them to the low-powered communications devices that Broadcom provides, we’ll allow new end-user applications that will drive every sort of industry, from consumer wearables to industrial applications. The goal is to create a fully interoperable, sensor-agnostic, open platform, with standard software protocols stacked on top of it. If you put that on an ultra-low-cost, ultra-low-power SoC (System–on-a-Chip) with built-in connectivity and enough processing capability to deal with the sensor data, then somebody else can go off and invent a new sensor technology to monitor your health or to monitor the environment. They connect it up to the SoC and, boom, you have a new IoT device.

Q: So the Internet of Things is only limited by our imaginations?

Samueli: The Internet of Things brings the small inventor back into the hardware device, creating an entire industry of entrepreneurs — just like the app market is doing today. Because the barrier to entry is so low, a small three-person company could design a new product for the Internet. You’ve already got interesting devices out there like smart watches and smart wristbands but as the sensors get better, the Internet of Things is going to get more sophisticated over time. It’s a constant evolution, which has just started. Every year it’s just going to grow and grow and people will invent new sensors to attach to these communication devices. It’s endless.

Q: Let’s talk about Ultra HD and 4KTV. Where is that trend headed and how does Broadcom fit in?

Samueli: We’re clearly in the very early stages of Ultra HD as we’ve just seen kind of the initial deployment of Ultra HD TVs. We introduced our product last year at CES and we’re going to start deploying it in volume in 2014. Once this technology gets into mainstream set-top boxes from vendors like DirecTV, Dish, Comcast, Time Warner and others, we’ll have a mechanism to display it on our TV sets and receive it from our service providers. And then, of course, the IPTV folks will follow, which means you’ll have Ultra HD decoders built into these lower-end boxes, as well, for Internet TV. Once there’s a distribution platform, content providers will start creating content in Ultra HD format and, over time, you’ll start seeing content from YouTube and everybody else going Ultra HD. By then, consumers will be compelled to buy Ultra HD TVs. The market will just take off.

In terms of Broadcom’s role, there’s a huge opportunity here as we start shipping our 7445 platform in 2014. In 2015, it’s going to really take hold and grow in a serious way.

Q: What about Ultra HD’s implications from a bandwidth perspective?

Samueli: You’re doubling the vertical and horizontal resolution, so you have four times as many pixels on the screen, which would mean you’d need four times the data rate. But HEVC (high-efficiency video coding) decoder technology uses the H.265 standard, which improves the coding efficiency by a factor of two over current MPEG4 (or H.264) technologies. So, you’re looking at roughly double the data rate to get an Ultra HD signal to your set-top box. But people will ultimately upgrade the broadband access networks in the home to accommodate Ultra HD’s higher bandwidth demands. DOCSIS® 3.1 will deliver multi-gigabits to the home, DSL is being upgraded and the PONs (passive optical networks) are getting upgraded.

Of course, once 4K TVs saturate the market, then 8KTV will appear, which is four times the resolution of the Ultra HDTV. I imagine we’re going to see more 8K demos at CES in 2014. Depending on the coding improvements, you can also cut the 16x bandwidth requirements for 8KTV by a factor of two,—up to eight times the bandwidth. But there might be another generation of coding that cuts it down to four times the bandwidth — and that’s more opportunity for Broadcom. We like more bandwidth.

Q: Let’s move from the living room to the road. Increasingly, cars are becoming just like mobile living rooms. What can consumers expect to see someday from a connected car?

Samueli: First, the multimedia experience is just going to get better, with high-quality screens on the back of your headrests and access to digital video libraries in the car. And then there’s connectivity. Broadcom has already deployed BroadR-Reach® Ethernet to network the car together but connectivity to the car will improve with Wi-Fi or even LTE connections. When you pull into a gas station you’ll have Wi-Fi connectivity to download things, and when you pull into your garage at home, you can connect automatically and download the latest movies or music for your next trip.

Of course, the ultimate automotive Holy Grail is self-driving vehicles, which is still in the prototype stages. Something like that will require even more sophisticated camera sensors to see what’s around the vehicle. It will need radar imaging to detect nearby objects and sophisticated GPS and Wi-Fi location services to pinpoint the location of the car. It’s a gradual process. Some cars already use similar techniques to park themselves. Collision avoidance systems are becoming more mainstream. Eventually, it evolves into fully autonomous vehicles.

Q: What is the opportunity for Broadcom in connected cars?

Samueli: As you incorporate more communications and connectivity functions, that creates opportunities for Broadcom. Carmakers are already playing with BroadR-Reach technology and we’re already deploying Wi-Fi in several models of cars. Going forward we’ll see more sophisticated end-point sensors and cameras, as well as Ethernet switches, all of which require more silicon content for communications, processor SoCs, image processing, and so on. The automobile market moves slowly, but I think it’s a great opportunity for Broadcom over the next five years.

LTE could become a mainstream automotive technology, depending on the cost. The reason Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are so popular is that they’re free. LTE could work if the pricing model was attractive enough.  I think consumers would pay many dollars but not many tens of dollars a month to connect their cars. Business models will evolve to accommodate it. Perhaps you could pay for it indirectly, so every time you download a new movie or a new song, you pay based on that content and connectivity goes for free.

Q: Speaking of LTE, what’s the future for that technology in mobile handsets?

Samueli: Historically, LTE has been a very high-end cell phone feature but we’re starting to see LTE come down the tiers into more affordable models, which means that we’ll see more cost effective, mid-range cell phones and smart phones with LTE capability. As we ramp our LTE products based on the Renesas acquisition, Broadcom will help bring down LTE costs next year.

But we’ll also start to see new flavors of LTE, as well. The first generation was called category three, which had a 75-megabit downlink and a 25-megabit uplink. That’s what’s in today’s mainstream phones. As we move into 2014 and 2015, we will see a category four, which has a 150-megbit downlink and 50-megabit uplink capability. And then you move to LTE Advanced, which has what’s called carrier aggregation that lets you transparently combine multiple RF carriers. It’s transparent to the consumer, but the operators have to upgrade their networks so that one cell phone can combine two independent frequencies for an even higher data rate. You can go up to category six, which starts at 300 megabits and steps all the way up to 650 megabits over the next five years. Initially, these rates will be adopted in the high-end hero phones, but eventually they may trickle down to mainstream devices.

Q: What about Wi-Fi, specifically 5G WiFi? What is its role?

Samueli: Broadcom introduced 5G WiFi a couple years ago and it’s now becoming mainstream technology. Over the next couple years, I see 5G WiFi becoming a standard in mid- to high-end cell phones, especially LTE phones. Samsung is adopting 5G WiFi across almost all its phone models. The beauty of 5G WiFi is that it’s not just about faster speeds. It’s the longer range and better coverage that’s impressive. I talk to people all the time who say, “I just upgraded to a 5G WiFi router and, my God, the coverage is incredible in my home now. I get coverage everywhere whereas before I didn’t.” 5G WiFi’s speed is great, but its range is even more important.

Carrier adoption is a different story, though. 5G WiFi will go hundreds of meters, but a full LTE signal will go miles. The industry is talking about denser deployments of small cells on light posts and on buildings in order to achieve really high data rates. Still primarily LTE-based, these new cells will also have some Wi-Fi capabilities. Over the next five years I think that approach will start picking up steam.

Q: Finally, what can you tell us about the efforts around wireless charging for mobile devices? It really hasn’t gone mainstream yet. Why not?

Samueli: One of the big limitations has been the lack of standardization. Nothing takes off in a big way until it becomes an industry standard that guarantees interoperability of multiple products from different vendors. We’re developing wireless charging as a worldwide standard. The three camps fighting over these standards are finally coming together so you can charge any phone on any charging plate. We will see more and more wireless charging solutions come on the market as the standards crystallize in 2014. In the meantime, if wireless charging gets adopted by a mainstream handset manufacturer like Apple or Samsung, it will instantly flip the market. Everybody will start doing it.

Q: Thank you for your time and your insight about these trends. We’re looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts at Broadcom’s Geek Peek event in San Francisco.

Samueli: It’s shaping up to be a great event and Broadcom is excited about so many opportunities where our technologies can have an impact on consumers.

View photos of Geek Peek

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Special Correspondent Fredric Paul is an award-winning writer, editor and content strategist who has spent his career covering the intersection of technology, business, and culture. His writing has appeared… More