Samsung credits ASICs for getting 5G base stations down to size

Samsung developed the RFICs and DAFE ASICs to support the 28 and 39 GHz bands. (FierceWireless)

One of Samsung’s bragging points when it comes to 5G is its ability to deliver all the goods, from chipsets to infrastructure to mobile devices, and that was on full display at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona last week.

Samsung Alok Shah
Samsung VP Alok Shah (FierceWireless)

Just before the show, Samsung Electronics announced that it had successfully completed the development of its 5G millimeter wave chipsets—comprised of Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits (RFICs) and digital to analog front end (DAFE) application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs)—supporting both the 28 and 39 GHz bands.

“We think that really drives the ecosystem forward,” said Alok Shah, vice president for Networks Strategy, Business Development and Marketing at Samsung Electronics America, on the sidelines of MWC. “You really do need to continue to shrink these 5G radios” in order to make siting and deployment easier and ultimately improve performance.

Samsung has been working with all three Korean operators on their 5G networks. Sprint also announced last week that it will be launching standards-based 5G commercial services in four cities in May, including Chicago, which is a Samsung market. Shah declined to say exactly how many sites it has deployed there but said they cover a good portion of the city.

RELATED: Sprint to launch commercial 5G in 4 U.S. cities in May

On the device side of the house, the 5G version of the Samsung Galaxy S10 will be released exclusively with Verizon sometime before July and multiple carriers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom this summer.

As for the base stations, Shah said the ASICs are critical for enabling an estimated 25% reduction in size, weight and and power consumption for 5G base stations compared to earlier iterations. By putting all of the discrete elements into an ASIC format, “you get much greater efficiencies,” he said.

Not every supplier uses ASICs in this way. Some companies build the ASICs and sell them to base station vendors, and some base station vendors, like Samsung, build their own. Others don’t use ASICs at all and use discrete RF components. But it requires expertise and a relatively large investment to fabricate these chips, and Samsung made the investments to do so.

“For us it was important to drive down costs and improve power efficiency,” Shah said. The RF chipsets will be in products coming out the second half of this year.

Samsung has already shipped more than 36,000 base stations for 5G, which demonstrates that “we’re really out in front when it comes to 5G leadership,” Shah said.

In the U.S., Samsung has partnerships with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint for different elements of 4G and 5G, Shah said: “Lots of activity and we really feel like being able to commercialize from the chipsets to the mobile devices to the infrastructure, we have a structural advantage that allows us to stay in front when it comes to 5G.”

As for T-Mobile, Samsung has a long relationship with the "un-carrier," and they've done trials together, but it so far hasn’t announced a 5G contract. Things could change with the New T-Mobile if its merger with Sprint is approved.

“Our relationship is strong and it will strengthen moving forward we think,” Shah said of T-Mobile.  

RELATED: Samsung joins O-RAN Alliance

Last month, Samsung announced that it was joining the O-RAN Alliance, a move that was not unexpected given its previous work with the X-RAN Forum and with Verizon on its Open RAN program.

“Samsung is a big believer in open ecosystems and open interfaces across all of our businesses,” he said.

Over the years, there have been many efforts to drive open interfaces within the RAN and they have struggled to some degree, but this one, with the momentum that it’s got, “it really feels like real progress will be made,” he said. “We’re really excited for that group to make waves.”