ZTE’s 5G radio access network (RAN) equipment will soon include eASIC semiconductors from Intel. The companies declined to say how many pieces of equipment will gain eASIC and whether the deal announced today is exclusive, but Intel expects ZTE’s 5G hardware with eASIC to start reaching the market later this year.
While the benefits and opportunities provided by 5G are well known, “once you open the hood of what’s really underneath the infrastructure to support 5G, there’s a lot of complexity under that hood,” said Ronnie Vasishta, vice president and general manager of Intel’s communications business and eASIC group.
The custom logic landscape is driving a lot of the infrastructure around 5G, and with that companies like ZTE are looking to transition from field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) to eASIC, Vasishta explained in a phone interview. “In the ramp-up phase of initial deployments a lot of flexibility is required and that’s where you use an FPGA,” he said.
As 5G deployments reach higher volume, telecom equipment vendors like ZTE are looking to eASIC products to reduce the costs and power consumption requirements of their RAN equipment, Vasishta said.
“ZTE hasn’t disclosed their plans for shipment. This is part of the 5G rollout that is happening toward the end of this year and next year,” he said. “[ZTE] hasn’t talked about specifically which piece of equipment they’re going to use our products in, but it will be the rollout that’s happening at the end of this year and early next year.”
Transition from FPGA to eASIC
Intel acquired eASIC, a privately held programmable chip company, for an undisclosed sum in July 2018, and Intel’s inroads in the FPGA arena came from its $16.7 billion acquisition of Altera in 2015. The deal with ZTE marks the first major eASIC deal for Intel in the telecom vendor space.
Vasishta described the deal as “symptomatic of what many other companies are going to go through,” adding that “the opportunity set presented by 5G is vast.” With FPGA, eASIC structured devices, and full custom ASIC devices now under one umbrella at Intel, the breadth of custom logic products is going to differentiate Intel in the market and be very important to RAN suppliers in the years ahead, according to Vasishta.
“Intel eASIC devices provide good power and cost benefits for our 5G wireless products and were essential to make a fast transition to meet our low cost and power requirement,” Duan Xiang Yang, vice president and general manager of wireless system architecture at ZTE, said in a prepared statement.