Qualcomm and Vodafone are to collaborate on the development of reference designs that will support the important massive MIMO capabilities of 5G Open RAN systems.
The companies said the initiative would allow many more OEMs to build their own networks, potentially hugely lowering the entry barriers existing now for them to develop such high performance networks.
The move should also drive diversification of network gear suppliers, making the cellular infrastructure yet more innovative and competitive.
One of the crucial tenets of the Open RAN concept is that it relies on interoperable software and hardware elements from as wide a range of potential vendors as possible, but this means an efficient way to tie them all together is, arguably, even more important, the companies suggest.
The basic building blocks of the “technical blueprint” will combine Qualcomm’s radio unit platform (RU) with massive MIMO capabilities and the chip group’s distributed unit platform (DU), which were launched last October.
The antennas and streams can be shared either in frequency or time domains (FDD or TDD), and between upload and download links. The reference designs are for both RU, which deals with the radio functions, and the DU, which focuses on baseband processing.
The collaboration between two of the main proponents of the Open RAN concept, one from the carrier sector, the other the hardware industry, should lead to many small and large players entering the “ecosystem” for fully open, interoperable and virtualized Open RAN options.
Vodafone has already said it is working on network configurations of up to 64T64R (64 antennas for transmit and the same to receive between the base station and a user’s device) for maximum possible capacity and the ability to connect multiple users at any time).
Santiago Tenorio, head of network architecture at the carrier, noted “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. Open RAN provides greater supply diversity by allowing many more small vendors to compete on the world stage.”
According to Gerardo Giaretta, senior director, product management at Qualcomm, the companies anticipate the reference designs will be published this year, with testing and validation scheduled for the second half of 2022, following detailed software development.
Vodafone’s recent announcement of a test and validation facility in the UK is expected to play a major part in this effort.
“Our chip sets for this, a specific solution for the DU and RU and targeting 5G infrastructure, will be available for sampling by the middle of next year,” Giaretta told EE Times.
And he added that when Qualcomm announced its chip solution for this area, “numerous operators, perhaps 15 or 16, showed interest in working with us. Vodafone seemed to share our vision the best.”
Giaretta suggested many of these other operators, such as Verizon, AT&T, DoCoMo, Deutsche Telekom may join in the effort. “We want to do this with as many of them as possible.”
He also deflected suggestions that this effort will compete with Intel’s Flex RAN baseband PHY reference design. “There may be similarities between the different architecture approaches, but we are not targeting Layer 2. This is not a CPU play for us.”
However, he noted Qualcomm is working with other chip vendors in this area, such as Intel, Xilinx, Nvidia to ensure there are standardized interfaces between Layer 1 and Layer 2. We need to ensure all this works together.”
Massive MIMO is vital for beam steering and beamforming to enable the best possible coverage and realize cell-edge data speeds, thus increasing the capacity of the network. It remains one of the most important tools to increase spectral efficiency and thus ensure maximum efficiency for 5G networks.