Startup with mixed-signal ASICs to boost 4G capacity

Startup with mixed-signal ASICs to boost 4G capacity

Technology News |
By Julien Happich


Mark Pinto

Mark Pinto


In an interview with EE Times, Mark Pinto, CEO of Blue Danube, noted that “capacity is the key issue” for every mobile network operator. To deal with “spectrum starvation,” as Pinto calls it, the mobile industry has been trying a number of 5G experiments while implementing LTE carrier aggregation plans. There has been some incremental progress.

But the industry needs to increase base station capacity much more efficiently and dramatically, he explained, by allocating spectrum when and where it’s most needed.

Historically, building new towers, adding more spectrum and bringing small cells were the options available for network service providers. However, Pinto said that small cells aren’t spreading as fast as initially thought, largely due to cost issues associated with siting and wiring. “There are also issues in managing interferences among small cells,” he added. Naturally, putting up new towers isn’t cheap, either.

5G is viewed as the answer to capacity issues, “But that [standardization] is going to be a while,” Pinto said. “We think we have a true breakthrough based on our proprietary VLSI design.”

Blue Danube Systems believes it can offer beam-forming solutions that integrate easily with LTE at “commercially viable cost.”



(Source: Blue Danube Systems)

(Source: Blue Danube Systems)



Pinto explained that there is nothing new about beam-forming itself.

The technique is used in sensor arrays for directional signal transmission or reception. It’s common in military radar. The 5G technical committee is also discussing the use of massive antennas for beam-forming.

But existing implementations and emerging proposals tend to rely on a “brute- force digital approach” that requires complex algorithms, Pinto explained.

In contrast, Blue Danube has designed a true mixed-signal ASIC, whose analog technology is used to form beams. 

The company’s high-definition antenna system requires “no need to use ‘real-time channel estimation’ or DSPs to form beams,” said the company. 

Radio placed behind each array of antennas shapes radiation to form beams. As each transmitter and receiver is coordinated at Giga Hertz speed, Blue Danube’s HD antenna systems quickly raster and scan the area, forming beams exactly where all the traffic is coming from, Pinto explained. 

The system, designed to form highly precise 3D beams by using a large number of array elements, deploys low-cost RF components.

Assume, for example, 100 elements inside a single box. The Blue Danube’s mixed-signal ASICs can keep them all synchronized and calibrated.  Meanwhile, the system’s “optimization algorithms adapt to component drift and provide array resiliency,” according to the startup.



(Source: Blue Danube Systems)

(Source: Blue Danube Systems)



Blue Danube’s solution is designed to boost signal quality by concentrating signals where users are, while focusing on frequency re-use where beams do not overlap. The company claims that beams in both transmitter and receiver provide up to 10 times improvement in capacity.

Keeping the cost down
The real key to Blue Danube’s system, though, is that it can be used by mobile operators for capacity increase without making big changes in today’s 4G/LTE infrastructure.   “Our technology is revolutionary but it is designed so that it’s easy for operators to integrate and upgrade their systems,” Pinto told EE Times.

More specifically, Blue Danube’s high definition antenna systems can be quickly installed at existing antenna locations using conventional mounting techniques. They are also fully compatible with LTE 3GPP Release 8 and above, said Pinto.

Blue Danube has raised $25 million in total thus far including $16 million in Series B funding. AT&T made a strategic investment in that round.

At this point, many CTOs at service providers and equipment vendors already know Blue Danube, said Pinto. Some equipment vendors are even asking Blue Danube to collaborate on 5G’s massive MIMO designs, or to supply Blue Danube’s own mixed-signal ASICs to them. 

Pinto, former executive vice president of Applied Materials and a Bell Labs fellow, said that becoming a chip vendor isn’t exactly his company’s plan. The startup wants to sell systems – initially to the current 4G/LTE market.

Asked how quickly Blue Danube’s system will be adopted by network equipment vendors, Pinto observed that some companies are struggling with a new model, under which the radio portion (supplied by Blue Danube) will be decoupled from the rest of the network gear they are selling. “They are so used to package them together.”

His company’s next step is network trials. Pinto said, “We’ve done a lot of simulations but haven’t done the live network trials. We’re shooting for it in the first half of 2016.”



(Source: Blue Danube Systems)

(Source: Blue Danube Systems)



— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times

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