Earlier this week, Qualcomm announced new chipsets for Virtualized Radio Access Network (vRAN) and open networks, adding to its existing small cell chipset product line (Qualcomm 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) for small cells). Specifically, the announcement focused on the following domains:
- The Qualcomm Distributed Unit (QDU) consists of a baseband processor with integrated concurrent <6 Gigahertz (GHz) and mmWave support.
- The Qualcomm Radio Unit (QRU) is a System on Chip (SoC) that combines low physical layer processing with a Radio Frequency (RF) transceiver chain, RF Front End (RFFE), and antennas.
- The Qualcomm Distributed Radio Unit (QDRU) is a combination of the above chipsets for more compact use cases.
Qualcomm is addressing the macro- and micro-cellular chipset market with these new products, targeting 5G New Radio (NR) infrastructure that includes Massive Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) and mmWave units. The announcement is a major milestone in the vRAN and open network markets, giving vendors more flexibility and scalability to create innovative products. With the newly announced radio networks chipset portfolio, Qualcomm will leverage its strong expertise in radio system design, 5G innovation, and computing to enable emerging infrastructure players, incumbent infrastructure suppliers, and smaller network system integrators to innovate and focus on what they do best: system integration using software, wireless protocols, and application stacking. The ABI Research white paper Open RAN: Market Reality And Misconceptions discusses the importance of both hardware and software in making the leap in terms of performance and efficiency in open network implementations.
So far, new entrants, startups, and smaller vendors that currently service the vRAN and Open RAN markets are focusing on niche markets that do not require scale (e.g., remote areas or some in-building implementations). Vendors that want to step up their game and target larger-scale opportunities must satisfy three fundamental points:
- System-level design of the entire RF front end to maximize performance, while enhancing power efficiency. This task requires strong in-house expertise they are often lacking and months of effort in order to take their concepts to commercial products. This is exactly the part where new entrants and startups need expertise and help from radio system suppliers like Qualcomm.
- DUs require powerful and flexible chipsets, often coupled with accelerators, to satisfy the demands of massive MIMO and mmWave radios.
- Flexible processing platforms for DUs that are coupled with advanced development platforms help new vendors focus solely on software innovation to differentiate and address mobile operators’ requirements.
Chipsets are the foundation of innovative products
The emergence of flexible chipsets and development tools has historically played a fundamental role in creating ecosystems around innovative technologies and allowed a new breed of vendors to enter and shape many industries that have now become the growth engine of our economy, including the Internet, the Personal Computer (PC) business, and the smartphone market. The same actions need to happen in the open network domain. Chipsets are the fundamental building block for cellular network infrastructure and what ultimately enables economies of scale for infrastructure, devices, and the broader ecosystem.
The current generation of chipsets that can enable vRAN and open networks has led to the market being unable to cater to operator pain points and advanced requirements, most importantly in the following areas:
- Massive MIMO units: Current physical layer processing for massive MIMO units consists of massively parallel signal processing units in the form of Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs). These are typically developed by large incumbent vendors and can be a make-or-break factor in terms of market success for these vendors. Currently, processing for these functions can only take place using these proprietary chipsets that smaller vendors cannot afford to develop due to the insurmountable upfront cost, but also the lengthy development and design time these platforms require. Common off-the-shelf processors cannot fulfill these requirements, even with custom accelerators and this is what the new Qualcomm chipset (QDU) is expected to enable.
- Macro-cell networks for consumers: This network domain is driving 5G deployments currently and is expected to be the focus for mobile operators in the next 2 to 3 years. Except for greenfield operators like DISH and Rakuten, most operators claim that vRAN and Open RAN network equipment still needs to evolve to match Tier One infrastructure vendor offerings in terms of cost, power efficiency, and integration capabilities.
There are good reasons that these areas have not been addressed yet. A chief reason among these is associated with the lack of well-integrated, cost-effective, and power-efficient radio chipsets from third-party specialists. This has created a very high barrier to entry for new entrants and stifled innovation for new products, implementation efforts, and deployments in brownfield networks. The lack of these chipsets has created a void in the market that is now being addressed with the new Qualcomm chipset platforms.
ABI Research expects Qualcomm to make a difference in the market. Its long expertise in radio systems and small cell chipsets, as well its strong influence in The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) roadmap and the 5G standard will lead to major benefits for equipment manufacturers. Qualcomm is also a first mover in terms of adopting new technologies and has a strong legacy in communications and computing technologies, as well as strong Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in the cellular domain. All these strengths indicate that Qualcomm is very well positioned to transform the vRAN and Open RAN network market as much as it did in the smartphone domain.
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