Microchip’s TimeProvider 4500: A High-Speed, High-Accuracy, and High-Scalability Grandmaster Clock for 5G Networks

Microchip Technology, a leading provider of smart, connected and secure embedded control solutions, has recently announced the new TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster, a hardware timekeeping platform that provides high-speed network interfaces up to 25 Gbps and enables precise time accuracy of less than one nanosecond.

This innovative product is designed to meet the needs of network operators who are deploying critical infrastructure for 5G telecommunications, power utilities, transportation, and other applications that require highly accurate and reliable time synchronization.

Why Time Accuracy Matters

Time synchronization is essential for the proper functioning of many networked systems, such as cellular networks, power grids, financial markets, and navigation systems. Time synchronization ensures that all the devices and components in a network operate in a coordinated manner, avoiding errors, delays, and inefficiencies.

One of the most widely used standards for time synchronization is the Precision Time Protocol (PTP), which is defined by the IEEE 1588 standard. PTP enables the distribution of time information over packet-based networks, such as Ethernet, using special messages and timestamps. PTP relies on a hierarchical structure of clocks, where the top-level clock is called the grandmaster, and the lower-level clocks are called slaves or clients.

The grandmaster clock is responsible for providing the reference time to the rest of the network, either directly or through intermediate clocks. The accuracy and stability of the grandmaster clock are therefore crucial for the performance and quality of the network.

The Challenges of Time Synchronization in 5G and Beyond

As network operators are upgrading their networks to support 5G and beyond, they are facing new challenges and requirements for time synchronization. Some of these challenges are:

  • Higher bandwidth and lower latency: 5G networks are expected to deliver up to 10 Gbps of data rate and less than 1 ms of latency for enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communications, and ultra-reliable low-latency communications. To achieve these goals, network operators need to deploy more base stations, especially at the edge of the network, where the distance and propagation delay from the core network are minimized. However, this also means that the base stations need to be synchronized with higher accuracy and stability, as any deviation or drift in their clocks can cause interference, packet loss, and degraded quality of service.
  • Higher density and scalability: 5G networks are also expected to support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, which is 10 times more than 4G networks. This implies that the network needs to handle a large number of PTP clients, each requiring time information from the grandmaster clock. The grandmaster clock needs to have enough processing power and network capacity to serve all the clients without compromising the accuracy and reliability of the time synchronization.
  • Higher resilience and security: 5G networks are also expected to support critical applications, such as autonomous vehicles, smart grids, remote surgery, and industrial automation, that require high levels of availability, reliability, and security. This means that the network needs to have backup and redundancy mechanisms to ensure that the time synchronization is not disrupted by failures, attacks, or interference. One of the common sources of disruption is the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), such as GPS, GALILEO, and QZSS, which is often used to provide the reference time to the grandmaster clock. However, GNSS signals are vulnerable to jamming, spoofing, and environmental factors, such as weather, terrain, and buildings. Therefore, network operators need to have alternative solutions for distributing very accurate time that are not dependent on GNSS.

How Microchip’s TimeProvider 4500 Grandmaster Clock Can Address These Challenges

To address these challenges and requirements, Microchip has developed the TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster clock, which is a small-form-factor, carrier-grade IEEE 1588 PTP grandmaster clock that can be deployed indoor or outdoor and is suited for edge or small cell deployments in LTE and 5G mobile networks.

Some of the key features and benefits of the TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster clock are:

  • High-speed network interfaces: The TimeProvider 4500 clock is the first 1588 grandmaster with 25 Gbps support. A customer can connect it to various network devices using a choice of 1 Gbps, 10 Gbps, or 25 Gbps network links. High-speed bandwidth is essential as network element upgrades are migrating towards equipment that requires a minimum of 10 Gbps and, in some cases, up to 100 Gbps.
  • High time accuracy: The TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster can provide network operators with a terrestrial alternative for distributing very accurate time, with a time accuracy of less than one nanosecond. This is achieved by using new hardware assist enhancements, such as the latest generation of digital synthesizer and Microchip’s PolarFire SoC FPGA, which enable the system to move into the picosecond time accuracy realm.
  • High scalability: The TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster can support very-high-capacity PTP transactions, up to 10,000 clients per port. This is enabled by an innovative hardware platform that allows higher IEEE-1588 scalability for thousands of clients. In network locations where range and capacity need to be balanced, namely in C-band 5G deployments, it is critical to be able to serve thousands of gNodeB from a single grandmaster.
  • High compatibility: The TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster can connect to various generations of network elements, such as 4G and 5G base stations, routers, switches, and servers, using different PTP profiles, such as Telecom Profile, Enterprise Profile, and Power Profile. This helps to preserve operators’ infrastructure investments and ensure interoperability across different network domains and applications.
  • High resilience: The TimeProvider 4500 grandmaster can operate with or without GNSS, using various sources of time, such as atomic clocks, cesium clocks, or other PTP grandmasters. This provides network operators with more flexibility and redundancy in choosing the best time source for their network, depending on the availability, accuracy, and security of the time information.

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