5G small base station chips are waiting for travelers in the starlight: how long will it take to be made in China?

According to data from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as of the end of August 2021, my country has built more than 1 million 5G base stations, accounting for more than 70% of the world’s total, and the number of 5G terminal connections has exceeded 400 million. China is already the world’s largest 5G market. In the first six months of 2021 alone, 190,000 5G base stations will be built. By 2030, the number of 5G base stations in my country is expected to reach 15 million.

With the construction of 5G base stations, 5G application scenarios are entering the stage of large-scale implementation. The upstream of the base station industry chain requires a large number of Chips and modules. The penetration and popularization of small base stations will undoubtedly become another “fertile ground” for the semiconductor industry.

5G has clear requirements for small base stations

According to the standard of 3GPP (third generation mobile communication standard), wireless base stations can be divided into 4 categories, namely macro base station, micro base station, pico base station and femto base station. Femto base stations are collectively referred to as small base stations.

5G small base station chips are waiting for travelers in the starlight: how long will it take to be made in China?

Types of base stations in the 5G era, organized by the semiconductor industry

5G small base station chips are waiting for travelers in the starlight: how long will it take to be made in China?

Macro base station and pico base station.Source: pixabay, Ericsson

With the continuous construction of 5G networks, 5G business scenarios have begun to shift from outdoor to indoor, and the market is more inclined to use small cells in indoor scenarios. Because of the operating frequency bands of the four major operators previously released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the 5G frequency bands are distributed between 2515MHz and 4900MHz, and the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. During transmission, the signal is attenuated to a greater degree, and its radiation range will become very small where obstacles are encountered.

5G small base station chips are waiting for travelers in the starlight: how long will it take to be made in China?

Chinese operator 5G spectrum.Source: China Galaxy Securities Research Institute

In fact, small cells are not exclusive to the 5G era, and have been deployed as early as the 4G era. However, since the macro base station in the 4G era can carry more than 70% of the traffic, the usage of the small base station is not much. In the transition from 4G base stations to 5G base stations, due to the limitations of national network construction, small base stations have become a necessary supplement, especially the construction of indoor networks. At present, China’s 5G network layout has formed a situation of “macro base station foundation and small base station supplement”. Small cells can fill the gaps caused by insufficient land space and insufficient budget.

5G small base station chips are waiting for travelers in the starlight: how long will it take to be made in China?

The use of a 5G small base station in the floor.Source: Bikoc

Because of the unique role of small base stations, it is expected to usher in its own market opportunities. Market research firm Dell’Oro predicts that the global small cell market will reach US$25 billion in the next five years. According to ABI research, the global indoor small cell market will reach US$1.8 billion in 2021.

Unlike consumer grades, small cell chips require a high degree of maturity and reliability. At present, because the characteristics of FPGA and ASIC have different usage scenarios and characteristics, the core main control chip of 5G small base station occupies the mainstream market with SoC of FPGA and ASIC chip. . Relevant people in the industry believe that from 4G small base stations to 5G small base stations, what needs to be broken is the core main control chip, especially the integrated digital chip with high computing power and low power consumption as a dedicated main control chip. Coincidentally, some people in the industry have also analyzed that if a 5G small base station is disassembled, the most expensive one is an FPGA main control general-purpose chip with a price of about 600 US dollars, which exceeds the sum of the other chips on the small base station.

The three major players share the “world” of 5G small base station chips

Many big manufacturers have occupied the vast market starting from 4G base station chip solutions, and this strong market position has also continued to 5G base stations. At present, 5G small base station chips are still monopolized by major international manufacturers. After Broadcom withdrew from the market, Intel, NXP, and Qualcomm became the three major players.

In 2019, Intel and China Mobile Research Institute launched the world’s first commercial 5G open platform small base station at “MWC19 Shanghai (Mobile World Congress)”, opening a new round of industry commercial product innovation. In this small base station, Intel used Xeon processors and its FPGA products, and the application of the jointly built small base station on the cloud covers indoor 5G scenarios.

In Intel’s platform designed for 5G small cells, RRU (Remote Radio Unit) is based on Intel Arria10 FPGA. Arria10 FPGA and SoC serial transceiver provide broadband, low-latency, and low-power options, which can support the development of high-speed communication systems. Ideal for wireless base stations. Intel’s current end-to-end solutions based on Flex RAN have been widely adopted by the vast majority of 5G small cells.

In NXP’s 5G small base station products, SoC and programmable baseband are also its main areas. At present, NXP already has two communication processors for 5G small base stations – LS1046A and LS1026A multi-core processors. The two processors integrate quad-core and dual-core 64-bit Arm Cortex-A72 with packet processing acceleration and high-speed peripherals. In the field of programmable baseband processors, the LS1043A processor is NXP’s first quad-core 64-bit Arm processor for embedded networks, delivering performance over 10 Gbps.

Layerscape LA1200 is a programmable baseband processor 5G-NR fixed wireless edge access and 3GPP infrastructure equipment launched by NXP. The LA1200 splits options, proprietary applications and value-added differentiation for O-RAN functions through PHY/baseband processing, and is still in the sample stage.

Qualcomm has shown strong enthusiasm in the 5G field. Its FSM100xx released in 2018 is a classic 5G small cell chip solution and the first 5G new air interface (5G NR) solution. This ASIC chip uses a 10nm process and can support both millimeter wave and Sub-6GHz frequency bands, and can support both non-standalone (NSA) mode and independent networking (SA) mode.

At the end of last year, Qualcomm announced that it had reached a purchase agreement with Nokia to provide it with a new 5G indoor small cell chipset, the FSM100xx 5G RAN. This purchase became a major victory for Qualcomm in the 5G RAN market.

On June 28 this year, Qualcomm Technologies once again announced the launch of its second-generation Qualcomm 5G RAN platform for small cells (FSM200xx), the first 5G openRAN platform compliant with the 3GPP Release 16 specification. Features such as eURLLC it supports can provide the low latency and link reliability required for factory automation and mission-critical machine equipment control.

China has entered the stage of mass production

The domestic 5G small base station architecture is usually three levels of distributed BBU + switch + RRU. Among them, the active room sub-system represented by Huawei Lampsite and ZTE Qcell has become the mainstream of 5G indoor, and the small base station chips of both use ASIC, and Unpublished.

Huawei pRRU uses its exclusive self-developed ASIC “ultra-broadband” chip, and officially commercialized the 5G LampSite 100MHz bandwidth product in 2019. GlobalData, a telecommunications industry consultancy, rated LampSite as the “leader” in the field of Enterprise Small Cells, winning the title for three consecutive years. Last year, Huawei launched the 5G LampSite 200MHz pRRU using its self-developed chips, which can support multiple frequencies and enable integrated 4G/5G deployment for new indoor scenarios. 5G LampSite 300MHz supports C-Band single frequency, which can support the co-construction and sharing of operators.

In addition to Huawei and ZTE, some semiconductor startups have also targeted this market and began to emerge.

Bikochi Microelectronics is one of them. On June 9, Bikoqi Microelectronics completed the Pre B round of financing of nearly 100 million yuan. One of the main businesses of the Hangzhou-based company is to provide openRAN standard SoCs for 5G small cell equipment manufacturers. At present, Bikoqi has launched PC802 small base station chip, PC802 can be used for 5G integrated and distributed, expandable small base station, and supports URLLC. This chip uses the RISC-V architecture, and the recently launched ORANIC 5G board embeds four PC802s, which can provide four 25G Ethernet SFP connectors.

At the 2021 China Beijing International Communication Exhibition, Silang Technology officially released two 5G small cell chips UCP1002 and UCP4008. Silang Technology said that the UCP1002 chip is the first 5G small base station chip with its own core. In July last year, the UCP1002 was taped out. UCP series chips are based on MaPU technology and the “concentric circle” source model, and use the self-developed AppAISArc command system, which has become a highlight product of domestic small base station chips. At the same time, at this communication exhibition, Silang Technology announced the launch of the UCP4008 chip mainly for enterprise-level application scenarios. The company said that this will be the first enterprise-level 5G small base station chip in China.

In 2020, China has become the largest market for 5G. Last year, the number of 5G connections in China exceeded 200 million. However, the upstream chip of 5G small base station started late. Compared with many communication manufacturers in the midstream and many downstream application scenarios, the degree of localization is low, and the number of participants has become an urgent problem to be solved.

Broad market has opened

As mentioned above, the three giants Intel, NXP, and Qualcomm use FPGA, Arm multi-core architecture and ASIC chips respectively, while China values ​​ASIC and RISC-V architecture. ASIC has strong customization, lower power consumption and stronger performance, and has become the preferred architecture of major domestic players. The RISC-V architecture has become the “new favorite” of domestic players because of its open source characteristics.

According to the calculation of the semiconductor industry, the market size of the domestic 5G small base station may exceed 25 billion yuan by 2025. Relevant agencies have estimated that the number of 5G small base stations in China is expected to reach about 10 million by 2025. If the average price of the small base station market is estimated at 2,500 yuan, the domestic market size may exceed 25 billion yuan conservatively.

With the “attractive” market prospects ahead, how to go upstream in the competitive landscape has become a topic that domestic companies must face. Compared with foreign manufacturers, domestic companies have a better understanding of the Chinese market and can create products with excellent performance and power consumption, as well as a safe and reliable ecosystem. If you have a goal, you are not afraid of the long road. The 5G small base station chip is waiting for the passers-by in the starlight.

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