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Software-defined silicon is coming for telecom kit later this year

Startup EdgeQ believes pay-for-what-you-use model will make 5G transition more cost-effective

Interview While the IT industry waits to see if and when Intel will introduce software-defined silicon in Xeon CPUs, one startup is moving ahead with plans to bring a pay-for-what-you-use pricing model to the telecom market with its "base station-on-a-chip" later this year.

Silicon Valley-based EdgeQ, which is led by former Qualcomm and Intel executives, announced last week that it has begun sampling an EdgeQ-based 5G small cell and OpenRAN PCIe accelerator card for base stations with telecom operators and equipment makers.

Things are apparently moving smoothly enough for the startup that Adil Kidwai, EdgeQ's head of product management, told The Register that its RISC-V-based chip will appear in mass-manufactured products like small cells and base station accelerator cards "by the end of this year."  

If EdgeQ chips appear in telecom products on schedule, it could represent a significant change in how companies pay for equipment. That's because the startup is offering its chip first and foremost as software-defined silicon, meaning an organization would only have to pay for the features it uses, that can be toggled on or off through over-the-air updates from EdgeQ and its system partners.

EdgeQ believes the software-defined silicon model will make it more cost-effective and, therefore, more feasible for organizations to transition from 4G networks to 5G networks. The reason, according to Kidwai, is the model will allow organizations to spread out the costs for ramping up 5G deployments and adding new features, rather than paying a lot of money upfront for the equipment and any unwanted options.

"If you buy from anybody else other than EdgeQ, you have to pay for all the features on the get-go, which means a lot of capex investment. With EdgeQ, what you can do is you can buy features à la carte," said Kidwai, who previously worked on network and AI products at Intel.

This means, for example, an IT manager at an organization can start out by only paying for basic connectivity features in an EdgeQ-based small cell and then upgrading over time to new features, like network slicing, location services, and ultra-low latency.

"You can buy a low-latency feature, and six months down the line, if you want more throughput or more bandwidth, if you want to go from 2x2 to 4x4 [antennas], or you want to move from 1 Gbps to 5 Gbps, you don't have to buy a new box," Kidwai said.

With EdgeQ's chip supporting 4G connectivity in addition to 5G, the startup claims the software-defined silicon model can help organizations save money in their transition from 4G to 5G. This supposes a scenario where an organization buys an EdgeQ-based small cell and pays only for 4G connectivity before eventually making an upgrade to 5G.

"EdgeQ is the only solution in the world which can enable a seamless transition over the air without throwing away any capex investment that you have," Kidwai said.

The startup is making software-defined silicon sound like a boon for the industry, but if ceding complete control over a box in exchange for consumption-based pricing doesn't sound like your cup of tea, EdgeQ said its chip also has performance and efficiency advantages over rivals.

Kidwai claimed that the EdgeQ-based 5G small cell that's being sampled can currently provide 2.2 Gbps, which is roughly 10x the speed of what 4G small cells in the market provide now. He added that EdgeQ expects to reach 5 Gbps in throughput within the next few months.

"From a power consumption perspective, we are only one-third of the nearest competitor," Kidwai said. ®

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