Nokia-Marvell Partnership Targets Crucial 5G Performance Gap

John Byrne – Service Director, Global Technology Telecom and Software

Summary Bullets:

  • Nokia announced a partnership with Marvell Technologies in March to address a significant gap in 5G radio.
  • The Marvell partnership should help accelerate Nokia’s deployment of SoC solutions, but the company’s ill-fated decision to deploy FPGA silicon will put a damper on its results throughout 2020.

Nokia announced a new partnership with semiconductor specialist Marvell Technologies in March, under which Marvell will develop silicon for Nokia’s 5G radios. The deal is a crucial factor in Nokia’s bid to regain momentum after making some design decisions that have left it struggling to compete with other radio vendors in winning new 5G business contracts.

Under the partnership, Nokia will work with Marvell to build a new generation of custom system-on-chip (SoC) and infrastructure processors that combine Nokia radio technology with Marvell multi-core Arm processor platforms. The new-and-improved chipsets, referred to as ‘ReefShark,’ will be embedded in Nokia AirScale radio solutions and replace existing field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that Nokia had previously been using to support its 5G processing requirements.

Nokia made the strategic decision several years ago to utilize FPGA silicon technology in its 5G radios – unlike primary radio vendors such as Huawei and Ericsson — because it concluded that it would accelerate time to market for new 5G radios and create more flexible deployment options for network operators. That may have been true; however, FPGAs have proven to be more expensive and less efficient on power consumption than SoC. That in turn puts Nokia at a competitive disadvantage in 5G at a crucial time when many operators are making multi-year decisions on which vendors to move forward with in 5G.

Nokia is anxious to move away from FPGA silicon as quickly as possible but has indicated that it will take time for the new SoC-based product to ramp up. At its year-end earnings call, Nokia indicated the proportion of its 5G radio shipments that are ‘5G Powered by ReefShark’ was only 10% in Q4 2019 and the company expected only 35% of shipments to be SoC-based by the end of 2020. The newly announced partnership should help accelerate that timeframe, but it will still be more than a year before Nokia is truly in line with its competitors on silicon competitiveness.

The Marvell partnership was too late to save Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, who announced his resignation in March. That resignation is not slated to take place until September, however, meaning with any luck Suri may see his company’s fortunes start to improve before he leaves.

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