Nokia Taps Three Major Chip Vendors for Customized 5G Chipset

June 17, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

With 5G around the corner, Nokia is boosting SoC processing power and intelligence with the help of Broadcom, Marvell, and Intel.

Nokia and Broadcom have announced that they are collaborating to develop custom SoCs destined for integration into Nokia’s 5G-powered by ReefShark portfolio. The goal of the effort is to not only expand the range of ReefShark 5G chipsets but to also improve system performance and reduce the energy footprint of 5G networks.     

Broadcom’s ASIC expertise is a powerful complement to Nokia’s broad experience in wireless technology. The SoCs produced by the partnership may be an important key to the success of practical 5G networks. Through their joint efforts, Nokia expects to expand its AirScale radio access portfolio.


Nokia’s AirScale devices

Nokia’s AirScale devices. Image used courtesy of Nokia


Tommi Uitto, Nokia's President of mobile networks, explains, "We are delighted to bring Broadcom’s silicon technology leadership and best-in-class ASIC capability to the table, allowing us to deliver high performance and serve our customers’ needs as the demand for 5G services increases.”  

Broadcom is the third major chip vendor that Nokia has approached to refine its ReefShark chipset, the first two being Marvell Semiconductor and Intel.


What is ReefShark?

Nokia is developing ReefShark chipsets in response to 5G.

The real magic of 5G, in terms of low latency and super-high data transfer rates, occurs at the service’s higher frequencies; that's also where the greatest challenges occur. Signals at those frequencies don’t travel as far as 4G does and are easily disrupted, which means that literally millions of new antennas will be required for realistic 5G service.



Nokia says ReefShark decreases size, cost, and power consumption of each cell site while boosting intelligence and processing performance. Screenshot used courtesy of Nokia

ReefShark units will plug into current Nokia AirScale system modules, which are software upgradeable to full 5G functionality. The current ReefShark chipset family features a baseband processor, which increases Airscale throughput capacity up to 84 Gbps while cutting power consumption by up to 64%, according to Nokia. ReefShark is "architecture driven" and adheres to 3GPP 5G new radio specifications. 

ReefShark is AI-based and employs deep learning to enable smart, rapid actions by the autonomous, cognitive networks. Continuously accruing knowledge from live data events, ReefShark is said to accommodate unprecedented 5G network performance.


A Switch from FPGAs to SoCs

In a Reuters report on the Nokia-Broadcom collaboration, Reuters explained that Nokia originally relied on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for its 5G efforts. FPGAs can, as the name suggests, be quickly reprogrammed in response to changing requirements.

But FPGAs are notoriously expensive, which may have been the reason for the switch to SoCs. SoCs, while costly to design, are cheap to reproduce once the manufacturing specifics are nailed down.


Nokia Reaches Out to Marvell and Intel

Nokia's collaboration with Broadcom follows a series of other collaborations Nokia has established to fortify its 5G portfolio. In the past few months, Nokia has partnered with other semiconductor leaders, including Marvell Semiconductors and Intel.

In March, Marvell Semiconductor announced that they are taking an active role in Nokia's ReefShark development. An important point of interest was Marvell’s multi-core Arm processor platforms. Together, the partners will develop what Marvell terms "5G multi-RAT (radio access technology) silicon innovations."


Nokia has selected Broadcom as its third 5G chip vendor

Nokia has selected Broadcom as its third 5G chip vendor. Screenshot used courtesy of Nokia

Shortly after Marvell's announcement, Nokia announced that it was teaming up with Intel to produce 5G new radio and cloud infrastructure based on Intel's silicon technology.

Nokia specifically plans to deploy Intel’s Atom P5900 processor and its Xeon Scalable processor, which features built-in AI acceleration, into its 5G portfolio. Reuters mentions speculations that delays at Intel may have caused delays in Nokia's 5G product deployment. 


Outsourcing SoCs to Silicon Giants

Nokia isn’t fundamentally a silicon company. They manufacture communications equipment, so it makes sense for the company to seek partnerships with established silicon giants. It's likely that challenges presented by the scope and scale of the 5G explosion will foster many more such partnerships across the industry.

While Nokia started with FPGAs, these devices proved to be too cost-prohibitive. Non-dedicated ICs would take up too much space and power and generate too much heat. As the dust begins to settle around 5G, it isn’t surprising to see the development of dedicated SoCs.

Nokia plans on implementing custom chips in all of its 5G products by end of 2022.