Qualcomm announced at its 5G Summit on October 20, 2020, the addition of three all-new system-on-a-chip (SoC) designed for 5G macro and micro base stations. These three SoCs include one for the radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU), and a combined RU/DU.

Omdia view

Summary

Qualcomm announced at its 5G Summit on October 20, 2020, the addition of three all-new system-on-a-chip (SoC) designed for 5G macro and micro base stations. These three SoCs include one for the radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU), and a combined RU/DU. Qualcomm created these three SoCs to help create performance and feature parity between open virtual RAN (Open vRAN) solutions and the closed purpose-built solutions that currently dominate the market. This performance and feature parity will expand the addressable market for 5G Open vRAN solutions and give operators more choices as they build their 5G networks to support widening performance requirements. A sampling of these SoCs will begin in the first half of 2022.

5G brings a new level of complexity to the mobile network

As mobile generations have progressed, they have brought with them new service possibilities and increased network complexity. In the 2G/3G era, the major network requirement was coverage, which was mainly satisfied through macro base stations. With LTE, the importance of capacity was added to coverage along with access to new spectrum bands. With LTE small cells, the concept of the heterogeneous network came into its own. 5G will expand network complexity well beyond LTE; 5G operators will need to consider not only coverage and capacity but also service applications.

5G technology allows operators to support a wider range of services than any previous generation. The introduction of massive MIMO and mmWave spectrum to the 5G radio access network can provide fiber-like performance. Using other emerging technologies and network architectures, 5G can support services such as high-precision manufacturing, complex seaports and logistical hubs, and autonomous driving. All these applications take service providers well beyond their current connection-based offerings.

Adding to 5G’s complexity is the fact that network performance capabilities will not be universally deployed. Operators will not support every feature and every service evenly throughout its footprint. Instead, they will often be selectively deployed only in areas where there is demand. This means an operator’s RAN can look very different across various markets.

The expected variety in RAN performance within an operator’s network has helped to drive interest in Open vRAN. Open vRAN gives operators greater flexibility in how they build their networks and introduce features at a faster rate as well. Qualcomm quoted 15 operators in its press release, ranging from AT&T and BT/EE to KDDI, Rakuten, Reliance Jio, Telefónica, Verizon, and Vodafone to cover every major 5G market.

Open and virtual RAN solutions create network flexibility to deal with service complexity

Open vRAN is the convergence of two trends: open and virtualized networks. The convergence of these trends enables the creation of a wider range of RAN solutions to meet the growth in number and types of services 5G.

With open network interfaces, a mobile operator can mix vendors within the RAN. They are no longer forced to use a single supplier for both the radio unit and baseband functions. Open interfaces also allow for the introduction of third-party applications to create different radio function capabilities. For example, radio performance requirements for manufacturing with low latency could be very different from performance requirements for high-speed fixed wireless access.

Thanks to virtualization, operators can deploy different and scaled architectures, separating real-time from non-real-time baseband functions into distributed (DU) and centralized units (CU). This separation of functions can allow for different levels of resource coordination and performance.  Virtualization also brings the separation of hardware from software. This will allow for easier introduction of new features to the mobile network footprint as those features are not controlled by the underlying hardware supplier. Instead, changes and upgrades can be initiated like software upgrades on a computer. Each radio node can be treated as a separate computer. Changes can be system-wide or localized to just a few sites.

However, there remains much work to be done before Open vRAN solutions have features and performance parity with closed purpose-built solutions. This is what the new Qualcomm® 5G RAN Platforms will address.

Qualcomm’s 5G RAN platforms address important hardware issues facing today’s Open vRAN systems

Qualcomm builds on its successful infrastructure solutions by introducing a completely new set of SoCs with its 5G RAN platforms designed to enable a new generation of flexible, virtualized, and open cellular networks. The new Qualcomm 5G RAN platforms address key operator challenges with the Open vRAN ecosystem.  

An operator survey conducted by Heavy Reading (now Omdia) in the first quarter of 2020 confirmed that the two biggest challenges to multivendor Open RAN were “system & performance robustness” and “functional & protocol compliance.” See Figure 1 on the next page for full results.

Figure 1: Biggest challenges to multivendor Open RAN

Qualcomm’s announcement addresses these important challenges with a family of high-performance and high-capacity RU, DU, and RU/DU SoCs to drive the adoption of vRAN 3.0.  Achieving 5G performance depends on the widespread deployment of millimeter wave spectrum and massive MIMO (mMIMO) to deliver gigabit speeds. Additionally, mMIMO is a challenge for COTS-based Open vRAN systems because of the extreme processing loads and high throughput these radios create. Scaling COTS systems to support mMIMO is possible; however, these aspects have a negative impact on the operator’s opex.

Qualcomm’s SoC is designed with the processing power and energy efficiency needed to support mMIMO and mmWave installations, reducing the overall cost of installation and operations and addressing two of the challenges to wider Open vRAN adoption. While software and hardware are separated in a virtualized network, hardware performance still matters. Currently, hardware performance has not met software performance in RAN virtualization. Qualcomm’s new SoCs are designed to address that issue.

Appendix

Further reading

Open RAN Commercial Progress, OM011039 (May 6, 2020)

C-RAN and Open vRAN Architecture Equipment – 2020, OM006776 (July 16, 2020)

Mobile Infrastructure Market Tracker - Q2 2020, OM006881 (August 28, 2020)

Authors

Daryl Schoolar, Practice Leader, Service Provider Networks

Chris Nicoll, Senior Principal Analyst, Service Provider Networks

askananalyst@omdia.com