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4 May 2021

Qualcomm makes a play to dominate Open RAN’s radio platform

By Wireless Watch Staff

Vodafone and Qualcomm have announced a highly significant partnership to develop blueprints that aim to lower the barriers to smaller vendors entering the closed world of RAN equipment.

Success would be a big step towards achieving a key aim of the Open RAN initiative – to broaden the choice of suppliers for telcos, in order to boost competition and innovation and reduce the power of incumbent vendors. However, it can be questioned how open the blueprint can be if it remains defined only by one chipmaker. The initial reference designs will be based on Qualcomm’s new 5G RAN platforms, including Radio Unit (RU) with Massive MIMO support and Distributed Unit (DU).

This is the latest example of a major operator taking a lead in trying to define open platforms that would enable many suppliers to work within established frameworks, while also reducing risk and deployment complexity for operators, and so helping to drive scale into the market. Rakuten’s Cloud Platform and similar offerings promised by NTT Docomo and Reliance Jio mainly focus on software – how virtual or containerized network functions (xNFs) and emerging xApps can work together on common cloud infrastructure and processors.

Vodafone’s effort is more heavily focused on the physical aspects of the RAN, pledging reference designs for open RUs and DUs that would ease the cost and technical challenge of designing these high performance elements, while also ensuring that any vendor’s RU or DU could work with the same telco cloud, RAN software, and centralized units. That could encourage the kind of broad ecosystem of manufacturers that exists in WiFi, and to some extent in cellular small cells. There, suppliers from tier one OEMs to white box manufacturers in Taiwan are able to target different form factors, price points and levels of complexity, while remaining interoperable through common interfaces and underpinnings.

For Open RAN to achieve its goals, common software, semiconductor and radio platforms need to succeed in the lofty macro 5G vRAN sector too, and this will be a key goal of Vodafone’s efforts in the medium term even if the immediate targets may well be small cells or rural systems.

Of course, a notable difference from existing efforts to create design or deployment blueprints, such as those housed within Telecom Infra Project (TIP), is that Qualcomm is the main semiconductor partner, rather than Intel. If we needed a signal that Qualcomm is serious about its re-entry to the mobile infrastructure market, on the back of Open RAN, this deal with Vodafone provides it.

The partners said their co-developed reference designs will be completed this year and will go into trials in the second half of 2022, with commercial uptake expected soon after that. They aim to enable new entrants to the RAN market to focus on the performance and optimization of their VNFs, applications and protocol stacks, while not worrying about chips and hardware. In the meantime, they say that a common 5G RU and DU platform will drive critical mass in components so that equipment makers can reach scale more quickly.

Gerardo Giaretta, senior director of 5G RAN product management at Qualcomm, said Massive MIMO was a key focus of the initiative. Massive MIMO is challenging to deploy and run and requires very advanced chipsets, as seen in work done by NEC and others in the Open RAN space. Giaretta said Open RAN Massive MIMO was “really a silicon availability challenge” – if that were addressed, efforts like those of Mavenir, which aims to create an ecosystem of homegrown and third party radios for Open RAN, will be easier.

“The problem right now is all of the Open RAN trials and early deployments that there’s been have been mostly based on generic SPUs,” Giaretta told FierceWireless. “And generic SPU is fine up to a point, but when you have to deploy this very, very high capacity type of scenario like Massive MIMO, the Layer1 processing, the physical processing, in 5G is just too demanding.”

Qualcomm claims its contribution to the planned blueprints will be a solution that combines its system-on-chip and single-purpose ASIC capabilities to create something that is “as good as what is used by Ericsson and Huawei, if not better, in terms of processing capability and power envelope”. But it will conform to O-RAN Alliance specifications so that any vendor can use it.

Given how Intel has carved itself out a position in 5G by offering the FlexRAN framework, for developing vRANs on its chips, this is a bold attempt by Qualcomm to seize the initiative away from FlexRAN when it comes to Open RAN (and Xilinx’s FPGAs in Massive MIMO). Qualcomm’s messaging is that it can create a superior open platform that draws on areas of expertise that Intel lacks – radio, undeniably – or where the RAN cannot rely on general purpose processors alone.

Qualcomm told TMN: “In discussion with operators it was a very clear message that there is no way that the current solutions out there that enable vRAN operation can compete in terms of power and performance with the vertical solutions.”

The company is keen to present its new designs as an addition to existing platforms, not the start of a war. It was clear that it would not compete head-to-head with Intel on x86 server-class platforms (where Qualcomm pulled back from its own efforts in 2019). Instead it will focus on the PHY layer, Layer 1 accelerators and RF, the areas where it has differentiation. Giaretta did acknowledge “similarities between the different architecture approaches” between the FlexRAN PHY reference design and the Qualcomm proposal, but insisted “we are not targeting Layer 2. This is not a CPU play for us”.

The key will be for all these chip giants to agree to support standardized interfaces between Layer 1 and Layer 2, which could be a step towards a truly heterogeneous RAN chip platform. However, history suggests this is really a land-grab. Qualcomm may have backed away from the CPU segment where Intel and Marvell excel, but it is bidding to define the part of the platform that has the greatest impact on 5G performance, and where it must see an opportunity to become incumbent, on the back of its considerable engineering prowess in Layer 1 and RF.

But Intel will want a full platform too. It has already moved significantly beyond a RAN solution based mainly on its CPUs, adding FPGAs and eASICs to its 5G portfolio through acquisitions, and even working on GPUs (and it could point to Qualcomm’s failure, to date, in areas where it shines, such as cloud processors). The 5G chip providers, which also include Marvell, Xilinx, Nvidia and Broadcom, are clear that the VRAN will need a heterogeneous semiconductor platform. One of the big questions is whether a single supplier will dominate that platform, as has happened in multivendor markets such as servers or smartphones in the past, or whether Open RAN will be open right down to the silicon layer.

For its part, Vodafone will bring its industry influence and its network optimization and engineering expertise to the partnership. If it succeeds in making an impact with the blueprints, it will be an important step forward for the bid by European operators to encourage a European Open RAN ecosystem that will drive the region’s continuing global impact on mobile networks – that was given focus by the recent memorandum of understanding signed to this effect by Orange, Vodafone, Telecom Italia, Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica.

“Global supply chains need a diverse and vibrant vendor ecosystem to keep them moving in the event of a product shortage or a single supplier having difficulties,” said Santiago Tenoria, head of network architecture at Vodafone, in a statement. “Open RAN provides greater supplier diversity by allowing many more small vendors to compete on the world stage.”

“Following the recent launch of our new Open RAN Test and Validation Lab, combining the creativity of Vodafone Engineering with that of our partners, we’re delighted to be partnering with Qualcomm Technologies to give smaller suppliers the best start,” Vodafone continued.

Giaretta said that, when Qualcomm unveiled its RAN chips, “numerous operators, perhaps 15 or 16, showed interest in working with us. Vodafone seemed to share our vision the best.” However, this initiative will need broad support and Qualcomm was clear that “we want to do this with as many of them as possible”.

In October, Qualcomm announced a roadmap to launch three new baseband and RF chipsets which will address macro and micro networks as well as small cells, targeting larger base stations for the first time since it sold its infrastructure chip assets to Ericsson in 1999. The new SoC products would support Open RAN specifications and support 5G on “all key global bands” including sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave, the company said at the time.

There are three families on the roadmap, to be available for sampling in mid-2022. These will power radio units (RUs), distributed units (DUs) and distributed radio units (DRUs – which integrate the RU and DU in a single box). The SoCs will incorporate Qualcomm’s 5G Modem-RF System with baseband, transceiver, RF front end and antenna panels, and will disaggregated RANs with functionality split between the RU and DU. They will be applicable to all base station sizes from macrocells with Massive MIMO and millimeter wave spectrum, to small cells.

Several operators, many of them leading lights in open RAN, publicly welcomed Qualcomm’s plans, including AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, LG Uplus, NTT Docomo, Rakuten Mobile, Reliance Jio, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Verizon and Vodafone.

The launch reflected the changing economics of the network equipment vendors, as does the new Vodafone partnership. Not only greenfield vendors, but operators themselves, may get into the business of designing RAN equipment. An early customer for Qualcomm’s new radio platforms will be Reliance Jio, which is developing its own 5G platform. Durga Malladi, general manager of 4G/5G at Qualcomm, said: “We recently achieved over a 1Gbps milestone on the Reliance Jio 5G NR product, leveraging our Qualcomm 5G RAN Platforms.”

Such trends will open up new opportunities for Qualcomm, which needs to diversify its business model as its core smartphone SoC market gets squeezed by slowing growth and China’s bid to develop a homegrown semiconductor ecosystem. It did work with Xilinx to launch a platform for servers and cloud-RAN infrastructure, though that is now on the back burner, but a macro RAN portfolio would be closer to Qualcomm’s comfort zone, and further from Intel’s.

Last year, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon said that the 5G infrastructure market was a “big opportunity”, especially because the momentum behind Open RAN architectures would encourage diversity in the vendor base, and the use of merchant chips. Amon said: “These new solutions, built on our modem and RF expertise, provide foundational technology for high performance infrastructure with cutting edge new features … This means that incumbent infrastructure vendors can complement existing portfolios with new capabilities, and new vendors can participate with Open RAN- compatible solutions.”

Qualcomm and Intel will not have this battle to themselves of course. Nvidia is working on GPU-based vRAN solutions with Ericsson and, if it is permitted to acquire ARM, will have an architecture with huge influence in the mobile market.

Marvell has been expanding its 5G offering. Its Octeon Fusion wireless infrastructure processor, which supports integrated base stations or 5G DUs, adds programmable DSP cores and baseband accelerators to the firm’s TX2 processor. Fusion is positioned as an alternative to vendors developing an ASIC inhouse, promising “the performance of an ASIC but still the flexibility of a processor”, as John Schimpf, senior director of product marketing, put it. Both the TX2 and Fusion chips are available in custom varieties which allow equipment makers to integrate their own intellectual property (IP).

Not that Qualcomm is putting all its eggs in the Open RAN basket. It was clear, last autumn, that its SoCs will support all the open RAN interfaces, but will also be deployable in single-vendor and closed architectures, depending on the preferences of the vendors or operators. “It can really depend on how the network will eventually evolve and how the mobile network operator will actually deploy the network, and which interfaces they will open first,” Giaretta said.

Dish says it will use multiple 5G chips:

Dish’s chief network officer Marc Rouanne says the company will continue to deploy distributed units on the Intel FlexRAN  platform, which it has used in its 5G Open RAN trials so far, but is also likely to run some DU instances on Amazon Graviton processors, following its announcement that it would move its 5G RAN and core to the AWS cloud.

It is also likely to add Qualcomm Open RAN chips to support other radio designs, including small cells, in future.

Rouanne did not comment on whether current virtual network function providers would have to port their software to the non-Intel processors, or whether different software providers would be chosen for these units.

Dish is currently working to develop a new generation of radios to run in its 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum. These will join its current radio units, supplied by MTI and Fujitsu, which only support the company’s AWS-4, 700 MHz and AWS H Block spectrum bands.