'Stress on the supplier base'
“There’s a wide variety of operators looking for different ways to provide coverage, and that’s putting a lot of stress on the supplier base,” said Stephen Turnbull, marketing manager at Freescale Semiconductor’s wireless access group. “There’s a huge variety of protocols and form factors thrown at the OEM base at a time when they are challenged in cost and power.”
Existing macro basestation players such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia Siemens Networks will clash next year with upstart femto suppliers such as Airvana, IP.access and Ubiquisys. Both camps will push to get small cell designs into field trials with carriers.
The competition will be most fierce in low-end markets. “There will be a lot of competition in the enterprise space as router companies come in,” said Y.J. Kim, general manager of Cavium Networks’ infrastructure group. Some of the smaller players may get acquired by the giants they already supply with femtos.
The market for outdoor cells that typically serve 64 to 128 users will also be one to watch. “Literally, there is nothing deployed there now, but I think it will get very interesting because operators don’t have a good handle on this sector,” said Aditya Kaul, mobile networks practice director at ABI Research. “They are used to renting rooftops or land and putting up towers and macro basestations.”
Kaul believes the big OEMs will focus mainly on outdoor cells and the smaller ones on indoor models. But as carriers integrate their networks across both, “the bigger guys will take control of the whole thing and start to buy out the smaller players over the next two or three years,” he said.
From ASICs to SoCs
The system trends are driving integration, playing into the hands of semiconductor designers. The macro basestations traditionally use a mix of ASICs, DSPs and FPGAs, with each OEM design taking a different approach.
Small cells, on the other hand, are moving toward multicore heterogeneous systems-on-chip for the SoCs’ cost, size and power advantages.
Seeing the shift, Freescale, LSI and Texas Instruments, the incumbents in basestation silicon, rolled integrated 28-nanometer SoCs for basestations earlier this year. Cavium followed suit, announcing SoCs in May.
“Their strategy is to do everything from small cells to macros, all with a single chip architecture,” said Kaul.
“The basestation-on-chip is the nirvana,” said Ilyadis at Broadcom. That company is still in the process of designing such parts, using a mix of in-house cores and IP that it recently acquired along with its acquisition of NetLogic Microsystems and others.
“It’s natural to bring your DSP, hardware acceleration cores, packet processor and even backhaul functions onto a single device,” Ilyadis said, declining to comment on any unannounced products. Ultimately, even Wi-Fi may get integrated into such basestation SoCs “once the market solidifies, but it’s too early for that today,” he said.
TI packed up to32 cores—including four ARM A15 processors and many of its C66x DSPs, along with packet processors, a RapidIO switch and antenna grooming circuits—into its latest Keystone II chips. Archrival Freescale used dual-threaded e6500 Power cores with a 128-bit AltiVec SIMD unit and SC3900 StarCore DSPs in its QorIQ Converge chips.
For its part, LSI is using 1-GHz-plus PowerPC cores and new embedded security features in its latest AXM2500 chips. The company plans a transition to ARM cores in the future.
“The big thing is that there is pretty aggressive silicon integration, so boards will be smaller and cheaper, and will consume less power,” said Tom Flanagan, director of technical strategy for Texas Instruments’ wireless infrastructure group.
Cavium claims it trumps the competition by packing its Octeon Fusion SoCs with up to six DSPs from an unidentified third party along with four 64-bit MIPS cores.
“That translates into our being able to handle more users” at data rates of 150 Mbits/second on both the uplink and downlink, said Cavium’s Kim.
Kim claims Cavium’s network processors are used in macro basestations from eight of the 10 top OEMs. But those chips could get integrated out of next-generation designs by the integrated parts.
Meanwhile, Cavium is gaining a toehold In the new small cells, with one OEM system sampling to a carrier. The new Fusion SoCs will be in production in the fall.
PMC-Sierra is also a player here, with a family of packet processors currently being used in macro basestations, small cells and backhaul systems.