Why PC makers are turning to cellular connectivity
Laptops and PCs have been shipped for decades with Wi-Fi connectivity but original equipment makers (OEMs) are increasingly adding cellular modules as users seek ubiquitous mobile coverage and organizations focus on ensuring remote workers have maximized connectivity options available. Joe O’Connor, VP PC OEM Sales, Quectel Wireless Solutions explains why cellular is finding favour and how this area of the PC market is developing.
To meet market needs and accommodate customers’ requirements for robust and secure connectivity that provides a consistent anytime, anywhere experience, PC OEMs have started to integrate cellular modules into their devices in order to add another option to their devices’ performance. Cellular connectivity isn’t intended as a replacement for Wi-Fi but for organizations that have large mobile workforces, it’s well understood that accessible Wi-Fi isn’t always available. In addition, some remote workers or students using State supplied devices don’t have domestic internet connections so Wi-Fi isn’t available to connect to.
For these users, cellular connectivity is an ideal option because most markets have almost complete nationwide coverage for LTE and are rolling out 5G, which will deliver extended mobile broadband (eMBB) capability alongside ultra-low latency. This will provide an experience equal to most forms of fibre connectivity and provide a realistic alternative to Wi-Fi. However, 5G deployment is still underway and public 5G networks still remain some years away in many markets.
The 5G availability challenge is compounded by the relatively higher costs of 5G modules and connectivity. Typical use cases such as public funded educational devices simply can’t justify 5G costs – yet. However, this will change as the mainstream 5G market takes off and economies of scale can be achieved.
PC OEMs have been quick to identify the potential of 5G and all have adopted 5G, while acknowledging costs are prohibitive for high volume devices. 5G currently is a top of the range offering targeted at high-end business users that have specific work needs that justify the cost and also the bandwidth that 5G offers.
Cellular connectivity however is not waiting for 5G to become an important capability in PC OEMs’ armouries. Admittedly, 100% of the total addressable market for laptops includes Wi-Fi connectivity but approximately 5%-18% include wide area network (WAN) connectivity as an option, demonstrating that there is a substantial appetite for alternative connections.
Good, better, best
Typically, OEMs are pursuing a good, better, best strategy in which 5G is positioned as the best connectivity and the flagship offering while low cost LTE serves the other extreme as a good solution. 5G offerings migrate from CAT20 down to CAT16 LTE-Advanced (LTE-A), offering better and best user experiences. LTE offerings that deliver low cost connections can utilize from CAT4 up to CAT9 connectivity and provide a basic level of connectivity. Users won’t be playing high definition low latency games but they will be able to receive email and submit schoolwork comfortably.
LTE is as low as PC OEMs want to go. LTE-M and other narrowband options are not applicable because of the limited bandwidth they offer which doesn’t meet user needs to participate in professional quality Zoom video calls or teleconferencing and has the potential to deliver poor experiences as users attempt to consume more bandwidth than is available.
The process of integrating cellular connectivity into a PC is relatively straightforward. Key criteria include space and power consumption but there is also a need to connect the cellular module to the device antenna and ensure good signal propagation can be achieved. Cellular module vendors must ensure that they work together with OEMs and their suppliers to ensure both Wi-Fi and LTE or 5G can co-exist happily in the final device. It is unusual for PC OEM customers to request module vendors include Wi-Fi as part of their solutions but it is vital to ensure there is no interference or conflicts between the Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity.
While the PC market is global with standard products shipped to all markets, with only minor adaptions such as keyboards for specific languages, the cellular market is more fragmented with different frequencies utilized in different national and regional markets. This added burden of localization can be easily addressed even as OEMs drive scale by cellular module vendors that have in-depth experience of service a global market.
Module providers should already be highly competent at developing solutions that can be shipped globally. Quectel, for example, has a regulatory and certification team that not only works to ensure the company’s modules are certified worldwide but also assists PC OEMs to get their platforms certified globally. PC makers can’t ship a laptop or tablet platform to any country without proper certifications so this expertise in understanding certification requirements plus willingness to collaborate together to achieve certification is essential for the further development of cellular connectivity in PCs.
PC OEMs also welcome other support from cellular module vendors at both the software and hardware development level. Quectel provides this and also offers comprehensive antenna system design services that enable the cellular module to be integrated with an optimized antennas design. On occasions the company can also provide platform level development support to customers and it has welcomed them into its labs to co-work with developers and allow them to utilize its test environments and radio frequency (RF) chambers. Quectel has established design centers worldwide so it can support customers and this goes hand-in-hand with regulatory and certification support.
The on-paper performance of a cellular module is only part of PC OEMs’ requirements. They have high expectations relating to the cost, quality and continuity of supply (COS) of cellular modules. This is true for all their devices but particularly so for premium PCs of which user expectations are very high. Critical performance criteria include power management, performance and security. It’s important to recognize the PC OEM customers have varying requirements depending on the markets they serve and the devices they bring to market.
Cellular connectivity for PC OEMs is therefore not a one-size-fits-all market and it’s essential that module suppliers are able to customize and fine tune solutions to best meet customer needs. As integrating cellular connectivity becomes more widely adopted by PC OEMs the additional option will bring the internet to more users for the first time and also enhance experiences of existing users as they move location or work remotely in places not served by fixed or Wi-Fi connectivity.
Cellular connectivity is a critical enabler of the digital economy and provides a foundation on which PC OEMs can truly help to build a smarter world.