Nokia taps Broadcom for 5G chipsets

Nokia continues to address its earlier 5G chipset woes, today announcing a new collaboration with Broadcom for custom system-on-chip (SoCs) solutions for the vendor’s ReefShark-powered portfolio.

Broadcom joins Marvell and Intel, both announced in March, as silicon suppliers for 5G ReefShark chips. Nokia has been working to replace its earlier field programmable gate array (FPGA) silicon, which burdened the vendor with high costs and cut into Nokia’s 5G profit margin, with custom SoCs.

Last fall, Nokia’s Rajeev Suri, without naming names, indicated that in addition to higher costs for FPGA, the vendor had been let down by one of its silicon suppliers. Still, Nokia previously only worked with one supplier, and fingers have pointed to Intel. Nokia said it’s been working to diversify its portfolio for some time now. It’s currently using Intel’s Atom P5900 processor as part of its “5G Powered by ReefShark” products.

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The Broadcom partnership appears to mark the three ReefShark SoCs that Suri previously said were under development for 2020, though a spokesperson said Nokia is working with several suppliers, including both custom SoCs and general-purpose processor products.

Nokia plans to integrate the SoC developed with Broadcom into its 5G AirScale radio access products “soon” but declined to disclose an exact timeline at this point.

Its Airscale portfolio includes basebands and massive MIMO antennas, among others, but there are several ReefShark variants that cover different functions in the portfolio. Developed using a mix of Nokia IPRs and Broadcom IPRs, the variant created with Broadcom follows the same development model that applies to all of Nokia’s silicon partners, the spokesperson noted.  

Nokia had said mobile access would be a sharp focus this year, with improvements in part driven by increased shipments of the 5G ReefShark portfolio.

In the first quarter, Nokia’s 5G powered by ReefShark shipments increased to 17% of the vendor’s 5G shipments, up from 10% in Q4. A Nokia spokesperson said it still expects the portfolio to represent 35% of its shipments in the fourth quarter of 2020 and is “well on track to reach this target.”

Executives previously set a 70% target for the end of 2021 and 100% by the end of 2022.

Nokia increased its SoC R&D capacity by about 60% in the last year as of February and expected a continued ramp during 2020. Some of Nokia’s new radio SoCs, particularly massive MIMO, had started shipping as of the first quarter, executives said at the time, with the baseband SoC expected later this year.

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The expanded ReefShark 5G chipset portfolio with Broadcom aims to boost system capacity and performance and lower the total cost of ownership for operators, Nokia said. That includes an improved energy footprint, in part from a smaller size and reduced power consumption.

The processors combine Broadcom’s expertise in application-specific integrated circuit ASIC technologies with Nokia’s wireless tech, according to the vendor.

“This important collaboration highlights our continued commitment to developing our '5G Powered by ReefShark' chipset portfolio and ensures that our 5G solutions deliver a best-in-class performance to our customers,” said Tommi Uitto, president of Mobile Networks at Nokia, in a statement. “We are delighted to bring Broadcom’s silicon technology leadership and best-in-class ASIC capability to the table, allowing us to deliver a high performance and serve our customers’ needs as the demand for 5G services increases.”

SoCs are more energy efficient than FPGAS since they’re custom built for the specific function they need to perform in equipment, but Nokia declined to disclose figures for energy savings or performance at this point, saying exact savings vary by application. Though not specific to the Broadcom-developed SoCs, Nokia’s ReefShark information page said the chipsets use 50% smaller hardware and reduce massive MIMO antennas by half. It also slashes energy use by up to 64%.

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Continued focus on its new chipset strategy toward a more diversified portfolio is happening as Nokia is poised for a shift in leadership.

Current CEO and President Suri is departing at the end of August after spending 25 years at the Finnish telecom giant, as is Nokia veteran and current CFO Kristian Pullola.

Incoming chief executive Pekka Lundmark and newly named future CFO Marco Wirén will take the reins at Nokia effective September 1.

Sari Baldauf’s last month took over as chair of the Board of Directors, succeeding Risto Siilsmaa, who had chaired the firm for eight years.