Vodafone, Qualcomm team up for Open RAN design

Vodafone and Qualcomm announced plans to develop open RAN reference designs aimed at making it easier for smaller and newer entrants to leverage high-performance silicon needed to support 5G base stations.   

The blueprints will be based on Qualcomm’s 5G RAN platforms, including Radio Unit (RU) with massive MIMO capabilities and Distributed Unit (DU).

Designs are expected to be published later in 2021, with trials starting in the second half of 2022.

As operators look to mix and match hardware and software from different vendors using O-RAN, Qualcomm said one of the most difficult performance challenges arises where two supplier technologies meet.

The partnership leans on Qualcomm’s expertise in high-performance and low-power Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) solutions and Vodafone’s large-scale network engineering prowess.

RELATED: Qualcomm bolsters 5G infrastructure play with vRAN platform

No vendor partners have been named yet, but OEMs and many other ecosystem collaborators will need to be involved to ultimately build final products, according to Qualcomm’s Gerardo Giaretta, senior director of 5G RAN product management. But ASIC and silicon is a key driver for much of the design work, he said, and a piece that is largely missing in the O-RAN ecosystem.

Addressing the Massive MIMO, open RAN challenge

One key goal of the partnership is addressing the challenge of massive MIMO and open RAN – which Giaretta described as “really a silicon availability challenge.”

Massive MIMO has been tipped as a key technology for 5G, including mid-band rollouts, which enables operators to deliver high-capacity and serve multiple users with a large number of antennas at the same time.

There are already products out there that support massive MIMO and Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO), he noted, from traditional vendors like Ericsson and Huawei that develop their own silicon solution. But a silicon product that can support processing demands at power levels acceptable to operators in an open RAN architecture is more elusive.

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“The problem right now is all of the open RAN trials and early deployment that there’s been have been mostly based on generic SPUs,” Giaretta told Fierce. “And generic SPU is fine up to a point, but when you have to deploy this very very high capacity type of scenario” like massive MIMO where “the layer1 processing, the physical processing, in 5G is just too demanding.”

It’s technically possible, he added, but not practically doable because of the amount of power consumed. So Qualcomm wants to deliver the best of both worlds: high performance with low power and usable in open RAN architectures.

Qualcomm's aim is to define an SoC and ASIC solution that “on one end is as good as what is used by Ericsson and Huawei, if not better, in terms of processing capability and power envelope” and at the same time is open in terms of O-RAN specifications, interoperability and working in any vendor ecosystem.

Others are also addressing Massive MIMO and open RAN, like a recently announced partnership between Xilinx and Mavenir. Xilinix’s Gilles Garcia previously expressed confidence those products will be “very competitive compared to what is available” particularly in the open RAN market.   

RELATED: Mavenir, Xilinx team up on open RAN massive MIMO

‘Incredible’ interest

For Qualcomm, which announced a bigger push into the network infrastructure space last October, Giaretta said interest has been high in terms of desire for a high-performance, low-power open RAN silicon solution for macro base stations.

“The level of interest from different operators, and vendors, but particularly operators, in the last few months has been incredible,” he said, with the Vodafone announcement providing further indication of that. “We knew it, but we were almost surprised in how much we’re hitting a key aspect of the ecosystem that was missing.” 

It’s something he said Qualcomm sees as a big opportunity for growth.

“Having somebody like Vodafone recognizing publicly, even though we are more than one year before we can actually demonstrate something, is very significant to us,” Giaretta said.

Vodafone has been pushing heavily on open RAN and efforts to ensure products can meet high-performance requirements. That includes last week’s launch of a new Open RAN Test and Validation Lab in the U.K. to help ensure O-RAN products live up to their promise. 

RELATED: Vodafone hopes to avoid open RAN Catch-22, launches U.K. lab

“Global supply chains need a diverse and vibrant vendor ecosystem to keep them moving in the event of a product shortage or a single supplier having difficulties,” said Santiago Tenoria, head of network architecture at Vodafone, in a statement. “Open RAN provides greater supplier diversity by allowing many more small vendors to compete on the world stage.”

Products that ultimately use Qualcomm’s tech won’t be ready for upcoming 5G deployments like early C-band in the U.S. But as operators build out capacity and potentially want to introduce new vendors in what Giaretta categorized as an “open RAN wave,” the chip giant expects to be a leader from a time-to-market perspective.

Dish Network last fall said it would a collaborate with Qualcomm to test gear using its new open 5G RAN platforms, with the operator looking for additional options as it builds out a 5G network in the U.S.