Qualcomm bolsters 5G infrastructure play with vRAN platform

While not an infrastructure vendor itself, Qualcomm is focusing more attention on the radio access network (RAN).

This week the company announced additions to its small cell chipset portfolio with new 5G RAN semiconductor platforms designed to support open and virtualized architectures, and that span the different flavors of RAN infrastructure deployments.

Widely known for its modems that power smartphones including 5G, Qualcomm already has a RAN line built for small cells. Its chipsets are present, for example, in infrastructure that Rakuten Mobile deployed in its fully virtualized mobile network in Japan, which was the first at-scale vRAN deployment.  

The new 5G RAN platforms are built to power 5G macro base stations with massive MIMO, along with micro cells and small cells, across a variety of 5G spectrum bands.

RELATED: Nokia integrates Qualcomm 5G RAN platform for indoor small cells

“By disaggregating former monolithic RAN implementations into interoperable modular components, the entire system can scale well to meet the demands of 5G networks of the future,” wrote Durga Prasad Malladi, SVP & GM for 4G/5G at Qualcomm, in a blog post.

Geoff Blaber, VP of research for the Americas at CCS Insight, told FierceWireless via email that the move is a good thing for the push toward virtualized and open RAN.

“Qualcomm’s diversification is a positive development for vRAN and OpenRAN. Supplier choice and diversity is a key objective and Qualcomm’s wireless expertise will be welcome from macro basestations down to small cells where it already plays today,” said Blaber.

Entering when OpenRAN is more mature

Qualcomm expects to deliver engineering samples of its new 5G RAN platforms in the first half of 2022, for select network vendors.

5G deployments are expected to ramp in 2021, as operators shift to standalone (SA) 5G and continue to use DSS for broader rollouts.  

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As for the timing of Qualcomm’s platform, in response to Fierce, Blaber suggested that Qualcomm will be delivering when open RAN itself is more mature.

“The timing is later than the market would ideally like but this is the early days of RAN transformation and the next two years will see OpenRAN becoming more established,” Blaber said via email. “Qualcomm will be launching products into a more mature market with open interfaces and best practice implementation that is much more developed.”

Specifically, the 5G RAN portfolio includes platforms for the Radio Unit (RU) Platform, Distributed Unit (DU) and when combined form the Distributed Radio Unit, made for smaller infrastructure designs. 

The radio unit platform is a System-on-a-Chip (SOC), addressing features from the low physical layer and RF transceivers, as well as RF front-end (RFFE) and antennas, wrote Malladi. It will have global support for 5G sub-6 GHz, millimeter wave, and 4G bands.

The DU platform is a baseband processor with natively integrated concurrent baseband support for sub-6 GHz and mmWave.

Targeting existing and emerging vendors

Operators have been working on virtualization efforts, and many like Vodafone and others, are advocating for advancing open RAN solutions. Virtualization and open interfaces have gained interest as ways to deliver new services more quickly and to lower costs.

A benefit often cited with OpenRAN is avoiding vendor lock-in from dedicated hardware and software, through disaggregation and open interfaces that potentially could provide more flexibility and choice using standards-based interoperable components.

It’s given an opening for smaller and emerging vendors, as a change from legacy network architectures where a few large infrastructure suppliers dominate the market.  

However, Qualcomm said its new vRAN portfolio isn’t just for emerging players.

“The new additions to Qualcomm 5G RAN Platforms portfolio provide a foundation that is designed to enable existing vendors to complement their existing product portfolio and build and commercialize their products quickly, as well as open a path for emerging infrastructure players,” wrote Malladi.

RELATED: Verizon to deploy indoor 5G mmWave sites with Corning, Samsung

Qualcomm has already worked with numerous smaller vendors, for example Airspan Networks and Altiostar. Airspan used Qualcomm’s FSM Small Cell 4G platform for small cells that Rakuten deployed in Japan. Its 5G NR mmWave distributed radio unit for Rakuten’s 5G network uses Qualcomm’s FSM100xx 5G chipset.

It’s also teamed with Corning on indoor mmWave solutions, which Verizon plans to deploy next year.

Nokia, one of largest traditional RAN suppliers, just last week announced integration of Qualcomm’s current 5G RAN platform to its new 5G Smart Node small cell to boost coverage indoors.

A broad range of leading global operators also joined in supporting Qualcomm’s announcement, including U.S. carriers AT&T and Verizon.

“AT&T has been at the forefront of every generation of wireless technology, including 5G, and we will continue to develop and deploy the most innovative solutions to meet the needs of our customers, said AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch in a statement. “But we cannot do it alone, and that is why we are excited to work with Qualcomm Technologies on future 5G network deployments such as vRAN and open RAN.”