Infrastructure equipment is probably even more important than devices in the early building of an ecosystem, as they are used to test the technology features and concepts, even as the technology is being standardized within 3GPP. Equipment vendors were early in announcing their effort in building 5G technology, often by announcing trials efforts with Mobile Network Operators and/or chipset manufacturers. Those demonstrations are often focused on pieces of technologies or concepts, such as Massive MIMO, the use of mmWaves in different mobility scenarios…
As industry efforts have now resulted in early (and accelerated) standardization of the technologies and as first operators are now preparing for network launch by the end of the year 2018 or early 2019, most equipment vendors have built and presented a 5G solution so that first network can start their deployment, even though commercial devices are not there yet.
Those solutions share more or less the same features, although each vendor has designed it solution around its main strength. These features are:
• 3GPP Release 15 compliance: Release 15 is the first official release of 5G. Before that, some equipment vendors have worked around not finalized version of the standard, or as is the case of network operator having built a pre-standard (such as Verizon with the 5GTF). As Release 15 of 3GPP has seen its specs frozen, infrastructure equipment now boast their full Rel. 15 compliancy.
• End to end offering: in the race to being the most advanced vendor, it is important to show full end-to-end product portfolio, which means a core network solution, a transport solution, a base-station adapted to different scenario (e.g. such as indoor or outdoor), and a “front-end” solution with diverse antenna solutions
• A (virtual) core network solution: It is built to be deployed in the cloud for maximum flexibility and to support the deployment of certain network functions at different places in the network, in centralized or more less distributed (up to the edge of the network) way
• Support for massive MIMO: Massive MIMO, beamforming and beam tracking and beam steering are key features to attain increased spectrum efficiency in 5G. The support of this feature is thus key for equipment vendors to assert 5G ambitions
• Support for sub 6 GHz and mmWaves: While mmWaves have received much of the attention in the race to 5G because of all the challenges associated in operating a radio network in these frequency bands (the 28 GHz notably), but C band below 6 GHz has also seen traction because of its roaming capabilities for 5G. In Europe, early deployments are likely to be in this band rather in the 26 GHz, because of its better coverage capabilities and the feeling of operators that they are not yet running out of capacity (as compared to the U.S. for instance).
As of end of August 2018, several 5G basebands have already been announced and should be integrated in products to be released as soon as in 2019 for the earliest device manufacturers.
Qualcomm, with its X50 modem was the first to announce its initiative, back in the end of 2016 and is today probably the most advanced player in terms of product availability, probably followed by Samsung, who announced its 5G baseband in August 2018 but with a much more integrated offering. As compared to Qualcomm, Samsung is indeed proposing, what it considers as the first integrated multimode 2G/3G/4G/5G baseband. The Qualcomm X50 module must be used together with a 2G/3G/4G baseband for Non Standalone Operation.
Qualcomm and Samsung are not by far the only players to have announced their 5G initiative in terms of baseband. Intel, Huawei, through HiSilicon and Mediatek have also made their announcement. At the Mobile World Congress in February 2018, Huawei had announced, through its subsidiary Hi-Silicon, its own 5G baseband called Balong 5G01, a chipset that Huawei claimed to be the first 5G commercial chipset, a claim that is true if we consider it is effectively used in Huawei own 5G CPE but that doesn’t reveal the level of maturity of the product. While both Qualcomm and Samsung chipset support throughput up to more than 5 Gbps in the mmWaves, Huawei Balong 5G01 currently support a maximum throughput of 2.3 Gbps.
As for Intel and Mediatek both players seem to lag behind in terms of product readiness. At MWC 2018, Intel was showcasing a solution still based on FPGAs, highlighting the integration steps still required for readily available and embeddable silicon. Mediatek seems to be in comparable situation, although much less is known about the development status of its Helio M70 5G baseband.