2020 may seem like a long way off, but it is less than six years from now. That means although 5G is still not officially defined, every company on the industry value chain is already working out how its products will fit into this next generation of wireless connectivity, said Tareq Bustami, vice president of product management of Freescale Semiconductor's digital networking group.
"5G is coming fast and furious," he told FierceWirelessTech, with many operators planning to commercialize services in 2020. Working backward, that means initial deployments and field trials will start happening in 2018, so standards must be set in 2016.
"And if you're somebody like us down in the value chain, you better start working on your silicon platform and your software platform three or four years before the field trials, which means 2015," Bustami said.
The tricky part is that nobody knows what 5G is. So for now, companies are participating in industry forums and working closely with clients to conceive the 5G roadmaps. "Given our domain knowledge and connection to our industry and customers, we're using that to stay hooked into what's happening," Bustami added.
Bustami also addressed the impact of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) on Freescale's QorIQ line of SoCs. "It is an evolution. It's not something that is dramatically different," he said.
SDN and NFV are all about open standards, and "QorIQ is evolving in the sense that we are adding an ARM portfolio," Bustami said. In addition, Freescale is also ensuring that Linux can be ported to its SoCs and that its Linux drivers are real-time aware.
Another important angle is enabling ease of use and programmability through software-aware silicon. "The magic sauce that's built into our QorIQ, which is how we accelerate packet processing, has to evolve and change in a big way to be suitable for SDN and NFV. A big part of that is to make it programmable and easy enough so you don't need a PhD to program it," Bustami said.
Freescale's digital networking group includes sales of communication and digital signal processors serving the networking and communications markets. For the second quarter of 2014, the group's sales were $291 million, up from $229 million a year earlier.
The company said that second-quarter networking sales growth was broad-based across service provider, enterprise and the general embedded segments. One particularly bright area was wireless base station sales in China due to the ongoing TD-LTE expansion.
"A lot of our revenue growth is driven by LTE, especially from China. That is still mostly based in macro cell deployments," Bustami said.
However, Freescale is also deeply involved in small cells. "On the small cell side, we were the first LTE SoC in small cells, delivering not just hardware but software as well," Bustami said, noting the company "went through a lot of growing pains" due to its pioneering efforts.
"We now have small cells deployed in the major operators in Japan, Korea and North America," he added.
The design of metrocells, for urban deployments, is particularly demanding. "That to us is a place where you need macro-class performance and capacity but with a small cell deployment model," Bustami said.
"At the end of the day, a small cell from the chip point of view is not just a piece of silicon that Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) or Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) or others will drive software on," Bustami added. "It's a turnkey solution that we're expected to provide."
He said the baseband processing, MAC scheduling, Layer 2 and 3 functions are increasingly "expected to come from the chip company," particularly in the small cell environment as opposed to the macro cell environment.
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