The Silicon game: Reaping 5G gold

In-built hardware can be a big amplifier for 5G adoption, reshaping connectivity paradigms and fuelling innovations in telecom, IoT, and beyond.

VoicenData Bureau
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5G Silicon

In-built hardware can be a big amplifier for 5G adoption, reshaping connectivity paradigms and fuelling innovations in telecom, IoT, and beyond.


Blackwell. Blackwell. Blackwell.

In the world of processors, that is the sound that was abuzz for the last few weeks when NVIDIA opened a new bag of chips with a strong AI flavour. But it was equally intriguing to see Intel announcing Sierra Forest at MWC this year. With this Xeon processor for 5G core that is coming in 2024, Intel, the OG processor giant, has iterated that 5G would not be an alien name in the terra firma of silicon. Not very far off, was Nokia which shared in February 2024, how it achieved approximately 40% runtime energy savings by tapping its cloud-native 5G core and Intel’s Xeon processors and power management software.

There are more in this fray. In September last, Qualcomm extended its partnership with Apple to supply 5G chips for the iPhone until at least 2026. Intel continues its strategic partnership with Ericsson to manufacture custom 5G system-on-chips (SoCs) for Ericsson’s telecom networking equipment. The likes of Viettel High Tech are developing their own 5G chipsets.



“The shift towards custom and in-house silicon allows telcos to tailor chipsets for their specific requirements, optimising performance, energy efficiency, and cost.”- Manish Mangal, Global Business Head, Network Services & 5G, Tech Mahindra

Indeed. The space of 5G-ready, and specially-brewed, silicon has been stirring up since the day Intel talked about manufacturing custom 5G SoCs (system-on-chip) for Ericsson. The specific 18A manufacturing technology to be used here has been stated to be ready by 2025. It was around 2019 when Intel used the words 5G base station chips. Today we are looking at estimates from MarketsandMarkets that peg the 5G Chipsets market at about USD 81 billion by 2028.


As per Mordor Intelligence, the Global 5G Chipset Market size is surmised at USD 44.37 billion in 2024 and expected to hit USD 109.97 billion by 2029. This report also explains how 5G chipsets are expected to be a critical component of 5G networks, to be rolled out at a massive scale for smartphone OEMs and telecom players.

Looks like processors specifically minted, or adapted, for 5G will make a huge difference ahead for semicon players, 5G adopters, telcos, and all of them, maybe. Let us mine into this emerging catalyst. Is 5G silicon unique and will its availability be quick enough and impactful enough?



“Qualcomm, Cisco, Ericsson, and Huawei were deeply involved in creating 5G, and they would have been very careful to make it align with their competencies.”- Jim Handy, General Director, Objective Analysis

What is this silicon?

5G is everywhere; if not on the ground, at least on serious whiteboards. As of January 2024, nearly 47 operators offered commercial 5G services on SA networks, while more than half of operators expect to deploy 5G-Advanced within a year after standards are released.


5G commercialisation is also gaining steam, with new models and infrastructure tailored to it. As of January 2024, as many as 261 operators in 101 countries globally had launched commercial 5G mobile services. Also, more than 90 operators from 64 markets have been committing to launch 5G in the coming years. There were 1.6 billion 5G connections at the end of 2023, and this number could shoot to 5.5 billion by 2030.

Now when all this is happening, operators and other players need to rely on underlying silicon that can run as fast as the data and capabilities that 5G is all about. That is where 5G Silicon comes in.

As 5G devices need to deliver higher bandwidth, lower latency and enhanced geographical coverage, chip designers and developers need to ensure RF performance, bandwidth and other crucial performance parameters, explains Nityesh Bhatt, Professor and Chairperson – Information Management Area, Institute of Management, Nirma University. “5G Silicon adds value as it is custom-made, application-specific and is optimised in terms of weight, size, and energy efficiency resulting into lesser total cost of ownership (TCO).”


Consider the pattern that came out in Nokia’s annual Indian market-focused Mobile Broadband Index (MBiT). 5G users are using approximately 3.6 times as much mobile data traffic compared to 4G since its launch in October 2022. In 2023, users consumed 17.4 exabytes per month with a CAGR of 26% over the past five years. The launch of 5G has emerged as a significant catalyst for the growth in data usage, contributing to 15% of all data traffic in 2023.

The way to deliver well in this new 5G era is full of many possibilities. Telcos can whip up their silicon or use custom silicon, either by collaborating with or by sourcing from Semicon players. There is always the usual route of using general-purpose silicon, of course.

Telcos are increasingly gravitating towards a mix of in-house silicon, custom silicon, and general-purpose processors to meet the unique demands of 5G networks, observes Manish Mangal, Global Business Head of Network Services and 5G at Tech Mahindra. “The shift towards custom and in-house silicon is particularly notable. This strategy allows telcos to tailor chipsets specifically to their network requirements, optimising performance, energy efficiency, and cost. For example, custom silicon can handle the massive data throughput and low-latency demands of 5G applications, such as IoT, edge computing, and massive machine- type communications.”



“5G Silicon adds value as it is custom-made, application-specific, and optimised in terms of weight, size, and energy efficiency resulting in lesser TCO.”- Dr Nityesh Bhatt, Professor & Chairperson – Information Management Area, Institute of Management, Nirma University

In-house development also gives telcos a competitive edge by differentiating their services and potentially reducing reliance on external vendors, explains Mangal. Agrees Glenn O’Donnell, VP and Research Director, Forrester: “While commercial chips from the likes of AMD and Qualcomm are being used at the moment, I expect the larger telcos to develop their chips in the future.”

But general-purpose processors still play a crucial role, especially in areas where flexibility and programmability are key, adds Mangal. “The choice between these options depends on the application, cost considerations, and the strategic priorities of the telcos.”

The use of 5G silicon also straddles the entire pipe of 5G, from the base station to physical layers to digital links (uplinks and downlinks) to back-haul and front-haul, areas up to the last mile.

Mangal delineates this in detail. “In the RAN market, Core Silicon, and base-station Silicon landscapes, the silicon strategy, indeed, diverges significantly across network layers due to their distinct functional demands. At layer 1 – the physical layer – there is a high priority on processing speed and efficiency, as it deals directly with signal processing. Custom silicon and Digital Signal Processors are often favoured here for their ability to handle high-throughput, real-time tasks efficiently.”

“Moving to layer 2—the data link layer—the focus shifts towards managing data frames and error correction, requiring a balance between computational efficiency and flexibility. Field-Programmable Gate Arrays or FPGAs and Application-Specific Integrated Circuits or ASICs are common, enabling customisation for specific network functions. At layer 3—network layer—which manages packet forwarding and routing, general-purpose processors are often sufficient due to the higher-level nature of the tasks, prioritising flexibility over raw processing power.” Hence, the silicon strategy must adapt to the requirements of each layer, balancing performance, cost, and flexibility to optimise network operations and capabilities, sums up Mangal.

Does this silicon matter?

Of course, the radio chips are important, O’Donnell says without a speck of doubt. “They handle the transmit and receive signals and use cognitive radio functions to optimise spectrum usage. All the major chipmakers like Intel, Qualcomm, and AMD are also vying for the RAN functions that integrate with the radio chips. Without these chips, there is no 5G.”

Just consider how India is guzzling more and more data, even with 5G’s full-tilt adoption still in progress. 5G traffic has shown substantial growth across all telecom circles, with metro circles leading the charge and reaching a 20% share in the overall mobile data traffic, as seen in Nokia’s report.

The significance of 5G Silicon in the expansion and adoption of 5G technology, especially for new use-cases and enterprise domains, cannot be overstated, captures Mangal.


“While commercial chips from the likes of AMD and Qualcomm are being used at the moment, I expect the larger telcos to develop their chips in the future.”- Glenn O’Donnell, VP & Research Director, Forrester

“As 5G networks promise to revolutionise industries by offering ultra-high speeds, lower latency, and increased reliability, the underlying hardware, particularly 5G Silicon, plays a crucial role in realising these benefits,” reasons Mangal, adding that advanced 5G Silicon chips are designed to be more power-efficient, support higher data rates, and enable a broader spectrum range, including millimetre wave frequencies. “This is vital for emerging applications in IoT, autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and industrial automation, where these capabilities are critical,” he says.

Not just that, security is a special glimmer that shines from silicon made for 5G. As Mangal reminds us, the enhanced security features embedded in 5G Silicon chips address growing concerns about data integrity and privacy.

Interestingly, 5G silicon can shuffle the chips in a new way for many other crucial industry concerns too. Like the ones around sustainability, interoperability and adoption pace of 5G itself.

From a sustainability perspective, advanced 5G Silicon chips are designed to be highly energy-efficient, reducing the carbon footprint of networks despite the massive increase in data throughput and connection density they support, affirms Mangal. “This efficiency is crucial as the global push towards sustainability becomes more urgent.”

Chips are at the epicentre of sustainability concerns right now because they burn too much power, reckons O’Donnell. “All chipmakers are working to make their chips more efficient, but the market needs to apply more pressure. ARM-based processor designs are gaining some favour for this reason.”

Interoperability is another key benefit, Mangal explains, pointing out that 5G Silicon can be engineered to meet universal standards, facilitating seamless communication between different devices and networks, essential for the global adoption of 5G.

What is most fascinating is the way scalability is inherently built into 5G Silicon designs. “These chips can support a wide range of frequencies and network configurations, from dense urban areas to rural deployments, enabling network operators to scale their infrastructure as demand evolves. The development and adoption of 5G Silicon, therefore, are foundational to realising the full potential of 5G in a sustainable, interoperable, and scalable manner,” underlines Mangal.

Who is slicing this pie? Any stones inside?

So, who would shine the most here: a long-time player like Intel or AMD, a telco with hands-on experience, a collaboration between a telco and a processor company, or new offerings made from ARM Blueprints or something else?

Ask Jim Handy, General Director at Objective Analysis and he brings this question in context to how the specifications for new cell phone standards are developed by established suppliers of prior-generation cell phone chips and systems. “You can bet that Qualcomm, Cisco, Ericsson, and Huawei were deeply involved in creating 5G, and they would have been very careful to make it align with their competencies. They probably also started to develop the chips to support 5G even before the standard was finalised. This makes them the most likely winners.”

It is anyone’s game right now, augurs O’Donnell. “This is because the major chipmakers all have some footprint. Intel and Qualcomm are the leaders, but not by much. Look for partnerships in the future. As telcos will design their ships, they will still need someone like TSMC, Intel, or Global Foundries to manufacture them.”

As per data from analyst firm Mobile Experts in 2023, Intel’s share of this market was at 31% the previous year, planting it in the lead against names like Marvell, HiSilicon, ZTE (Huawei’s smaller Chinese rival) and AMD.

The minefields ahead

Meanwhile, in the evolving landscape of 5G Silicon, several additional considerations merit attention. In particular, stresses Mangal. “As 5G networks underpin critical infrastructure and a myriad of IoT devices, the embedded security features within 5G Silicon chips are crucial for protecting against cyber threats and ensuring data privacy.”

India is witnessing exponential growth in the telecom domain and deep tech space (AIML, Blockchain, IoT etc.). However, unlike the Western countries, optimal alignment with government and academia is yet to be seen, Prof. Bhatt argues. “To realise the full potential and for sustained growth of new age technologies, synergistic efforts are needed from the government (policy paradigm), industry (implementation and scalability) and academia (skill-building, contemporary curriculum and research).”

It cannot be ignored that the manufacturing ecosystem for 5G Silicon poses challenges and opportunities as well. “Supply chain resilience and geographic diversification are becoming strategic imperatives to mitigate risks of disruption. The collaborative efforts between chipset manufacturers, network equipment vendors, and telecom operators are vital for driving innovation and ensuring that 5G Silicon meets the complex and evolving demands of the 5G era,” points out Mangal.

Well-said and well-augured; this is exactly why the land of 5G silicon is a long stretch of road ahead for both silicon specialists and silicon users. Making battle-ready 5G Silicon is not going to be a one-time drill. It will take a lot of patience, prudence and gut feeling to mine this opportunity in the right spots. 5G silicon may look full of glimmer but its challenges are hidden in plain sight.

By Pratima Harigunani