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27 October 2020

Qualcomm rides open vRAN trends to re-enter the macrocell chip market

Only last week, when Qualcomm announced a deal with Nokia for its small cell chips, we speculated that the company might be preparing to re-enter the macro base station market for the first time for two decades. Now that has been confirmed, with Qualcomm announcing 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 will support open RAN specifications and support 5G on “all key global bands” including sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave.

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). So far, this is a statement of intent rather than a detailed launch – no precise specifications are currently being shared and the products will be under development for the next year.

What is known is that 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 reflects the changing economics of the network equipment vendors. Operators’ bid to diversify their supply chains through platforms like open RAN will enable a larger number of base station suppliers. Though the impact is seen first in small cells, some of these newcomers will succeed in launching products for macro vRANs in future, but they will look for merchant chips to reduce their cost and time to market, rather than commissioning proprietary silicon as the major OEMs have traditionally  done.

Even the top vendors are pivoting towards merchant chips as they try to reduce their costs. After running into problems with an FPGA-centric solution it was codeveloping with (reportedly) Intel, Nokia is now working with Marvell, Broadcom and Intel on lower cost SoC platforms for its 5G base stations.

And 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 month, 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 in a statement about the new offerings: “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.”

Gerardo Giaretta, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, said he expected to be competing primarily with Marvell, Xilinx and Broadcom in this space, though as always in network infrastructure, there will also be competition from the OEMs’ lingering tendency to use proprietary designs. To counter this, it will be important for Qualcomm to support greater configurability than it does in its device chipsets.

Marvell has learned this lesson already. 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).

This flexibility is key to Marvell’s expanding relationship with its foundational 5G base station customer, Samsung – the companies are developing highly integrated solutions based on Octeon Fusion, with Samsung’s own IP incorporated.

Qualcomm will need to demonstrate similar cooperation and flexibility to reassure the large OEMs that they will be able to retain competitive differentiation even if they use merchant chips.

But of course, it has many advantages to build on. It has been establishing relationships with the radio vendors in several developments in millimeter wave and Giaretta sees tight integration of different bands as a key differentiator. “If you look at every single product out there right now and in the foreseeable future, they kind of have sub-6 GHz in one line in the roadmap and mmWave in the other line in the roadmap — different part of the website, different product, different people working on it,” he said.

He also pointed to Qualcomm’s expertise, derived from the smartphone market, in power efficiency and tight integration of multiple components.

He explained that, while the Qualcomm’s SoCs support all the open RAN interfaces, they 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,” he said.