Qualcomm, NEC team up on open vRAN units

Qualcomm’s move on the network infrastructure side has expanded to include a strategic partnership with Japan’s NEC. The pair are collaborating to build a 5G open virtualized distributed unit (DU), which will use the chipset maker’s X100 5G RAN Accelerator Card.

It’s part of a larger program led by NTT DoCoMo, the 5G Open RAN Ecosystem, with the aim of accelerating open RAN globally. 

Sadayuki Abeta, general manager, Radio Access Network Development Department at NTT DoCoMo, in a statement cited excitement about the partnership on next-gen 5G RAN technology.

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“The development of 5G open and virtualized DU solutions will help drive our OREC activities to make 5G RAN deployment more open and flexible with industry leaders,” Abeta said.

Qualcomm and NEC plan to develop products that are high-performing, while still O-RAN-compliant and power-efficient, saying it will help to lower the total cost of ownership and simplify 5G deployments.

NEC has been working with a number of companies on open RAN, including collaborations with NTT Docomo since 2018 to test and develop solutions. It’s worked closely with Japan’s Rakuten, and is one of the vendors included in the Rakuten Communications Platform suite, providing converged 4G/5G core solutions and 5G radio units. In Europe Telefonica’s trialed open RAN with NEC using Altiostar vRAN software, while DT this summer turned on live open RAN sites in Germany with NEC and Fujitsu remote open radio units (O-RU).

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Qualcomm, meanwhile, has been focused on diversifying its 5G focus into new verticals beyond smartphones – aside from infrastructure that’s included the broad category of IoT, edge and automotive.

That showed up in earning results this week – where sales in its smartphone chipset business soared and other categories performed strongly.

Qualcomm reported handset revenues of $4.7 billion, a surge of 56% year over year, citing strong demand across all major OEMs.

“We also demonstrated revenue diversification with combined, our RF Front end, automotive and IoT fiscal '21 revenues exceeding $10 billion, an increase of 69% year-over-year,” Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said Wednesday during the quarterly earnings call.

Roughly a year ago the chip giant introduced new 5G RAN semiconductor infrastructure platforms designed to support open and virtualized architectures, and that span the different flavors of RAN infrastructure deployments. Those were expected to start sampling to select vendors in the first half of 2022.

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At the time, CCS Insights VP Geoff Blaber called Qualcomm’s diversification a positive development for open RAN and vRAN, where supplier diversity is a key objective and Qualcomm’s wireless expertise would be welcome.  

Since then, Qualcomm has also teamed up with the likes of Vodafone to help scoot along the maturation of open RAN solutions. Part of that focus is helping the ecosystem by addressing a lack of silicon that can support high processing demands – like required by high capacity Massive MIMO technologies for example - at power levels acceptable to operators in an open RAN architecture.

The Accelerator Card mentioned in the NEC partnership had debuted this June and is designed to plug into Common off the Shelf (COTS) servers, to offload server CPUs from latency-sensitive and compute-heavy 5G baseband functions.

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“With the growth in open and virtualized networks, the integration of Qualcomm 5G RAN Platforms within NEC O-RAN products will provide a tremendous advantage to our customers, who demand high performance and power-efficient solutions for nearly any application,” said Katsumi Tanoue, General Manager, 2nd Wireless Access Solutions Division at NEC Corporation, in Thursday's announcement.  

During a keynote at MWC in Barcelona earlier this Qualcomm’s Amon said that as networks become more virtualized, major operators are looking at a different way to buy.

“They’re buying the servers from server companies and they’re asking the traditional vendors to provide the virtualized DU [distributed unit], just software, and Qualcomm is going to make that picture exist by providing a baseband in a PCIe card that connects directly to the server which is the virtual DU,” Amon said, adding they were very happy with the engagement at that point.