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SoC vendors to gain from small cell market

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:multiple chip architecture? SoC? small cell?

In-Stat has predicted that there will be 160.3 million active small cells, and the retail value of small cell shipments will reach $14 billion by 2015. This is a result of the constantly growing small cell market that multiple chip architectures and SoC vendors are keeping a close eye on.

"Small cells cover areas where macrocells would be overkill and are essential to the success of heterogeneous networking (HetNet), the term used to describe modern cellular infrastructure architecture," stated Chris Kissel, senior analyst at In-Stat. "HetNet is the practice of integrating small cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS), and WiFi with existing cellular infrastructure to create the best environment for signaling integrity, optimal uplink and downlink capacities, and low latencies."

Small cells include femtocells that serve as few as four users and have an effective range of 15-50m (typically used in residences and small enterprises). Picocells are used to provide coverage indoors and outdoors for up to 100 users while microcells are used to support as many as 1,000 users and have an effective range of 2-3km.

Currently, there are five approaches being used to power small cells, built around different SoC platforms. MIPS cores are being used in residential femtocells such as those made by Broadcom and Cavium. Also, SoC vendors are adapting existing mobile processors to meet the needs of femtocells. Qualcomm's Femtocell Station Modem (FSM) is based on its Snapdragon platform, while Intel, in partnership with Ubiquisys, is developing Edge Cloud local cache processing using Atom cores.

ARM processors are also being used by several SoC providers: DesignArt, Mindspeed, Picochip (acquired by Mindspeed) and TI are using ARM processors in combination with DSPs in their chipset designs. In addition, x86 processors have had limited use in microcells and could become important in picocells. As HSPA and LTE platforms evolve into LTE-Advanced, greater computational power will be needed to process packets and signals over larger spectrum channels, which could be an opening for this architecture.

IBM's Power Architecture is an emerging platform in the small cell market. Freescale has been the most vocal proponent. Naturally, it will not be the SoC vendors that ultimately determine who wins in the small cell silicon market. Mobile operators and MSOs will select products based on price, performance, and compatibility. The real wizardry will come from SoC suppliers trying to convince device manufacturers that their platforms are best.

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