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Qualcomm Rolls Out Chips for Small Cells That Draw Power Over Ethernet

July 16, 2021
The FSM200xx chip, which is based on a 4-nm technology node, is so energy-efficient it can draw power directly from other networking gear in the base station by using Power over Ethernet (PoE).

While it has long dominated 5G modems in smartphones, Qualcomm wants to own an even larger slice of the hardware behind 5G base stations with its new generation of modem chips for small cells, FSM200xx.

Small cells are portable, short-range base stations that run on limited amounts of power and are generally deployed by the thousands on street lamps, telephone poles, and in buildings to plug gaps in the coverage of a wireless network. These "micro" base stations can be clustered together to act as a sort of relay team, receiving radio signals from other base stations and then shooting data out to consumers at any location.

The San Diego, California-based company said the modem, which is paired with its 5G radio transceivers, radio-frequency (RF) ICs, and 64 compact antennas, is based on the 4-nm node from an unnamed foundry, giving it a large generational leap in performance in a smaller footprint and high-efficiency power envelope. This is a significant upgrade from its previous-generation FSM100xx, based on a 10-nm technology node.

The modem supports data rates of up to 8 Gbps with 1 GHz of bandwidth over millimeter waves, while it also supports wider 200 MHz bandwidths. It is also designed to handle carrier aggregation of 200 MHz in the sub-6 frequency range over the FDD and TDD bands, offering data transfers of up to 4 Gbps. The new chip resembles Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon X65 modem for smartphones, based on a 4-nm process.

Qualcomm has become one of the larger vendors of chips used in small cells, which are designed to serve dead spots in buildings and supplement service in crowded areas such as airports and factories. It sells to telecom equipment vendors Nokia and Samsung to smaller US firms, including Airspan Networks—which has deployed hundreds of thousands of radios worldwide built around the FSM100xx—and Altiostar.

The FSM200xx complements Qualcomm’s latest 5G DU X100 accelerator card that carriers can plug into "macro" base stations at the heart of 5G networks. The card plugs into the cluster of servers in the bowels of a base station via the PCIe slot to process the radio waves traveling through the antennas at the top of the tower. The accelerator can offload beamforming and other 5G baseband chores from the server CPU.

But while macro base stations will supply 5G services to many places, they cannot do it all by themselves. One of the major disadvantages of the millimeter waves used by 5G networks is that they are vulnerable to being blocked and deflected by walls and other obstacles and dissipate over long distances. That means a vast sprawling network of small cells is needed to augment macro base stationsand specifically in cities.

Large US telecom firms plan to boost their cellular network capacity with hundreds of thousands more of these small cells, which have a limited range of several hundred feet, to improve services and prepare for 5G networks. Global spending on small cell base stations is on pace to grow to $25 billion by 2025, rising at a significantly faster rate than "macro" base stations, according to market research firm Dell'Oro Group.

One of the advantages of the FSM200xx is that it never needs to be plugged into a power outlet. Upgrading to the 4-nm node vastly reduces the power consumed by the chip, meaning that it can draw power directly from other networking gear in the base station using Power over Ethernet (PoE). Bringing power and data delivery together can ease deployment and, as a result, reduces a carrier's costs, according to Qualcomm.

The chip, which can pump out the compute power required to run 2×2 MIMO and the beamforming behind it. The chip is the first in its category to support the Release 16 of the 5G standard, and it integrates a wide range of other improvements to boost a network's throughput and speed. The chip handles the full global range of millimeter waves and sub-6 bands used by 5G, including newer 41 GHz, 26 GHz, and FDD bands.

Qualcomm said it can also support the Open RAN standard for open radio access networks. The chip can also be used in any "functional splits" between the baseband and radio in disaggregated 5G base stations.

Pre-production samples of the FSM200xx will be available by the first half of 2022, Qualcomm said.

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