Ranictek, an IC design startup founded in 2022, aims to solve the pain point of 5G deployment through innovations in Massive Multi-Input Multi-Output (MIMO) technology. Based in Taiwan, Ranictek believes that the lack of cost-effective baseband chip solutions is a key reason behind the current slow pace of 5G penetration based on Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN).
Even though the concept of O-RAN will benefit mobile network operators by opening up the traditionally proprietary RAN equipment via open interfaces and standards, thus addressing the longstanding lock-in issue caused by traditional equipment players like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei, costs still remain a prohibitive factor that slows 5G O-RAN development, according to Mike Wang, founder and CEO of Ranictek.
Noting that base station manufacturers currently lack a cost-effective baseband chip solution in O-RAN ecosystem, Wang belives that it leaves a gap for Ranictek to address. Beyond 5G, Ranictek also plans to offer baseband solutions for both LEO satellites and ground stations.
"5G is not just about small cells"
Indeed, Wang has a holistic understanding of the problem with a career spanning across chip design, mobile network operating and system manufacturing sectors. After obtaining his PhD from National Taiwan University (NTU) with a thesis on Massive MIMO technology, Wang began his career in Taiwan's military R&D institute National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), where he worked on large phased-array radar technology - strongly related to Massive MIMO technology.
Later, Wang joined MediaTek subsidiary Airoha Technology to work on digital IC design for WiFi, Bluetooth, and audio/speech, before proceeding to research O-RAN as a senior fellow at Taiwan's mobile network operator Chunghwa Telecom. Prior to founding Ranictek, Wang worked as a director at the system manufacturer Aethertek, focusing on 5G mmWave small cell development. As a result of his strong theoretical background and practical experience, Wang believes that Ranictek has unfair advantages to fulfill the needs of baseband chip solutions for O-RAN base stations.
"Massive MIMO Technology is at our core," said Wang, indicating that while base stations in the 4G era have eight antennas, 5G base stations have up to 64 antennas. The increased number of antennas enabled a wider coverage, allowing a greater number of handsets and satellite ground stations to be served. The increase is also more energy-efficient by reducing the transmit power of both base stations and handsets.
Finally, Massive MIMO technology is suitable for macrocells with a larger coverage area compared to the small cells. "Contrary to common belief, 5G is not just about small cells," said Wang, adding that small base stations put 5G in a disadvantage when competing with WiFi in enterprise private network deployment due to its much higher costs. Ultimately, Ranictek sees medium and larger base stations to be the key to popularize 5G.
Most chip players in the O-RAN market, meanwhile, focus on small cells with fewer antennas, in contrast to Ranictek's focus on large and medium-size cells by Massive MIMO technology. As the volume of 5G baseband cells is ultimately incomparable with that of smartphones, major chip design houses like MediaTek are often not motivated to enter the race, Wang observed, leaving the opportunity to Ranictek.
Inevitable to get into Starlink supply chain
Currently, Ranictek's core IPs and FPGA prototype for O-RAN radio unit (RU) are ready, and the company targets US$2 million in its first round of fundraising due before the first quarter of 2024, with which Ranictek seeks to complete its FPGA solution by the third quarter of 2024. After its second round of fundraising planned in the second half of 2024, targeting US$15 million, the company aims to tape out its first baseband chips in the first quarter of 2025.
When it comes to LEO satellites, Wang believes that SpaceX's reusable rocket will give Starlink a major cost advantage against other satellite internet constellation operators. Therefore, those seeking to tap into the LEO satellite market will find it inevitable to hit into Starlink's supply chain, which already includes Taiwanese contract manufacturers. "Our strategy is to cooperate with those contract manufacturers of Starlink," said Wang, emphasizing that traditional LEO satellites still use analog beamforming technology, while digital beamforming technology will enable satellites to simultaneously communicate with multiple user terminals and ground stations.
Though Massive MIMO technology underpins both 5G and satellite communications, Ranictek will focus on 5G at this stage. Currently, Ranictek is cooperating with Taiwan-based O-RAN base station vendors to help them move from small base stations to the medium and larger ones preferred by the global market. Since Ranictek is a Taiwan company, it also has geographical advantages to work with the top semiconductor manufacturing company TSMC. Beyond 5G base stations, Ranictek will provide baseband solutions for both satellites and ground stations in satellite communications at the next stage.