Qualcomm made a splash last year when it announced it would sell silicon for 5G network equipment in addition to silicon for phones. That, according to Vodafone's Santiago Tenorio, is when "everything changed."
Tenorio, Vodafone's head of network architecture, said that Qualcomm's entry into the open RAN space has helped to accelerate the development of open RAN equipment, particularly in the tricky arena of Massive MIMO.
Massive MIMO technology promises to dramatically boost 5G network capacity by packing dozens of receivers and transmitters into each 5G radio. However, all that complexity generally requires high-performance chipsets that are tightly integrated with the radios themselves – designs that have so far been lacking in initial open RAN equipment.
But that's changing, according to Tenorio.
"Now, for the first time, we're not just competing and catching up with the incumbent architecture. I think we have a reasonable chance to actually overtake the performance of the incumbent architecture," he said. Indeed, Vodafone just last month announced it would team with Qualcomm to produce 5G open RAN reference designs for the operator's network equipment suppliers.
Tenorio was one of several top networking executives who spoke at Qualcomm's 5G Summit this week. Others, including Docomo's Naoki Tani and Deutsche Telekom's Arash Ashouriha, also spoke glowingly of Qualcomm's new open RAN products and the progress they're making in deploying open RAN network architectures.
Open RAN, of course, has generated an incredible amount of buzz in the global 5G industry during the past few years. The technology is designed to break up a wireless network into distinct, interchangeable elements. This would allow open RAN network operators to snap a Nokia radio atop a Samsung basestation, for example. Like Legos, open RAN promises to allow operators to assemble their networks with a variety of pieces from a variety of suppliers, rather than purchasing everything from a single vendor.
And while operators like Rakuten in Japan and others have proven out these initial open RAN concepts, those in the industry agree that cutting-edge technologies such as Massive MIMO have mostly remained out of reach for most operators in these early days of open RAN. As a result, most open RAN deployments by big network operators have focused on rural areas, where bandwidth demands are typically low.
However, according to Qualcomm's supporters, that's changing as high-performance chipset suppliers like Qualcomm, Marvell and Xilinx increasingly develop silicon specifically in support of open RAN interfaces.
"Open RAN is the pathway going forward," said Ashouriha, SVP of group technology innovation for Deutsche Telekom. Qualcomm's entry into the open RAN space "is about ecosystem development."
- Vodafone, Qualcomm team for 5G open RAN reference designs
- Qualcomm targets macro cell towers with new chipsets
- Open RAN and the mission to crack massive MIMO