This year’s Mobile World Congress exhibition in Barcelona marks a key point for UK chip designer Picocom.
The company, based in Bristol, UK and Shanghai, China, is exhibiting products from nine customers on the stand and have over 30 customers in total for its 5G Open RAN baseband chip.
The company taped out its flagship RISC-V 5G system-on-chip, the PC802, last year and has been ramping up production for customers in a range of applications, from small cells to enterprise and private 5G networks. Now it is looking at variants of the chip and what needs to be included in the next generation architecture.
“Until now, Open RAN has suffered from being expensive because vendors were implementing it using general-purpose components. Over the last year, optimised SoCs from companies like Picocom have become more readily available. These are being designed into equipment, and mass deployment will start in 2023,” said Peter Claydon, President of Picocom.
Last month it announced Antevia in Reading, UK, as its latest customer for the PC802 chip. This enables a cost-effective 5G private network deployment that enables intelligent routing of coverage and capacity within buildings or campuses to accommodate variable demand or simply to provide highly reliable 5G connectivity.
“Antevia Networks is pioneering a new class of 5G private network coverage for enterprises worldwide. In working together with Picocom, their state-of-the-art 5G silicon and collaborative approach is allowing us to innovate faster, reach the market sooner and deliver groundbreaking solutions for enterprises needing cost-effective 5G private networks,” said Simon Cosgrove, CEO of Antevia Networks.
“I have been very impressed by the way that Antevia Networks has taken Picocom’s Open RAN O-DU and O-RU components and built a truly innovative solution for indoor coverage, built on the standard open interfaces defined by the O-RAN Alliance,” said Claydon. “This is a great illustration of how Open RAN enables network operators to create highly differentiated products on top of the building blocks that Picocom’s flexible silicon provides.”
The PC802 is shipping in mass production quantities together with mature software for Open RAN Distributed Units (O-DU) and Radio Units (O-RU), as well as integrated small cells. In addition, PC802 supports both 4G LTE and 5G NR so that so-called neutral host operators can support cellular coverage throughout a building from all the local network operators.
“If Open RAN is to be successful it needs customised chips. The rise of private networks and neutral host building operators are wanting to put in infrastructure for all the mobile operators,” said Claydon.
The chip has two banks of 16 customised N25F RISC-V cores from Andes Technologies for management of the upper PHY layers, with an array of XC-12 digital signal processor cores from Ceva, all linked by a network on chip (NoC) from Arteris.
Variants could include a lower cost chip optimised for radio units. “We are moving in that direction for more optimal products in 2023 and into 2024,” said Claydon.
Doug Pulley, chief solutions architect at Picocom who previously co-founded UK telecoms chip designer Picochip with Claydon, is looking at the requirements for the next generation architecture. This will be supporting Release 18 of the 3GPP specification that is currently in development with a view to supporting early 6G networks.
“It’s about weighing up which direction of the market is the most interesting to optimise,” said Pulley. “On Rel18 there are work items we are watching carefully and these will be looking at the use cases such as more antennas. There’s a lot that will be trialled ready for 6G and it would be foolish to bet against 3GPP. We are also watching carefully the new frequency allocations.”
The company has developed an evaluation board with an RF front end from Analog Devices and works with Radisys on the embedded software that scales up from small cells to traditional basestations.