Coupling & Crosstalk: 1, 2, 3, 4 … 5G – Ready in 2020?

5G canstockphoto22241792_300x200Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Winter 2017 edition on pages 8-9.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

1, 2, 3, 4 … 5G – Ready in 2020?

Everyone loves a spectacle: the Olympics have become a marketer’s dream, shining a spotlight on new products for a world-wide audience. It is no wonder we have been promised demonstrations of “5G” cellular technology at the 2018 Winter Games (South Korea) and 2020 Summer Games (Japan). While there is going to be an inordinate amount of “hoopla” surrounding 5G, it is important for those in the semiconductor supply chain not to lose focus on the massive effort required and the attendant challenges and opportunities to get from these early proofs of concept to a commercial 5G reality.

The refrain “Are we there yet?” is premature, but now is the time for your company to decide when and how it will embrace 5G technologies!

The Olympic “demos” will be a gutsy move given that the 5G wireless standard (Release 15) has not yet been drafted. Yes, initial development work on the standard is underway by the members of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the umbrella group of the seven telecommunications standard development organizations. The 3GPP has scheduled the evaluation of submitted proposals to start in October 2018 with the standard completed by October 2020. The “5G NR” (Release 15) standard is to fully detail the operation and functionality of the entire New Radio (NR) technology. Should all mention of 5G prior to the standard completion be called 5Gish? Sadly, the marketeers would never allow this even though the technology savvy among us know to be skeptical of all claims of performance or compatibility until the standard is completed.

So what of 5G will be shown in February 2018 at Pyeong Chang, Korea? Clearly there will be no actual 5G smartphones given the timing of the standard. Even in July 2020 any devices shown in Tokyo will be “preliminary” based upon drafts of the standards. There are at least two types of demonstrations that can be done at each event with distinctly different “audiences”. The first type are technology demonstrations showing that the “building blocks” work in real life or at least at scale under “controlled” circumstances. These types of demos are targeted to investors (telecom companies deciding on deployment as well as financial investors) and those developing the supporting hardware and software along with others in the “supply chain” (semiconductor suppliers, antenna manufacturers, etc.).

Sadly, these technology demonstrations are unlikely to be of much interest to the average consumer for whom 5G is being developed. And consumer demand for these new products and services is essential to fund the deployment of 5G technology. Without this next generation of connectivity, the current 4G networks will collapse due to the insatiable demand for more data bandwidth. Not to mention the end applications such as autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things (IoT) that will require 5G functionality.

Were you excited by Qualcomm’s announcement last month (October 2017) of a functioning Snapdragon X50 5G Modem? Even as 5Gish as this was, I was impressed. However, this demonstration went unnoticed by the typical consumer who simply does not care how a technology product functions but what the product can do for them. And we have gotten to the point where the actual smartphone hardware may no longer be a significant differentiator; the differentiators are the infrastructure behind the phone and the services the phone can offer. As such, users are unlikely to continue their yearly or bi-yearly pattern of upgrading hardware. 5G speeds and features will be a game changer! Starting with the majority of phones being replaced.

So what will 5G do for a typical user? This is the second type of demonstration needed. The easiest functionality to “sell” is the 10x or greater increase in speed from a theoretical maximum of 1 Gb/s of 4G to 10 Gb/s or more for 5G. Once again, the average consumer is unlikely to understand what a gigabit per second really means. However, a good example is going from over an hour to a few seconds to download a full-length movie. And the ability to support more devices in a dense area such as a stadium or exhibition hall certainly will get consumers to pay attention since the current networks often run out of capacity in these environments.

5G is more than just a telephone feature as it will significantly decrease latency time making other applications practical. (Latency is a measure of how fast the network can respond.) Almost anything that moves that is not 100% fully autonomous will likely benefit from latency in single-digit milliseconds instead of tens to one hundred milliseconds today. For example, vehicle-to-vehicle communication used to indicate braking is only useful if the data is distributed to other cars very quickly with the least amount of latency.  Similarly, other vehicle to fixed infrastructure, other roadway users, etc. (V2x) communications have the greatest value when the system is really usable at highway speeds. Other moving “objects”, such as robots for surgical operations and factory automation, are also likely to benefit from quicker response times.

The Korean Olympic demo will likely showcase high speed, ultra-high network capacity, and possibly show a low latency application for the audience to appreciate. KT Corporation (formerly Korea Telecom) could deploy an application that will allow the viewers to switch between multiple viewing angles (cameras) of an event in almost real time. Obviously, KT will need to provide some demo hardware to fully demonstrate capabilities since no current smartphones support 5G and any phone they could build at this point will only be 5Gish.

There are five base enabling technologies for 5G: Mm-wave, Small Cell, Massive MIMO, Beamforming, and Full Duplex. From an infrastructure demonstration perspective, KT is likely to use just two – Small Cells and Massive MIMO. Small Cells is reducing the area covered by a base station and increasing the number of “cells” to cover a given area. Think of thousands of cells similar to WiFi access points spread throughout a building or down a metropolitan street instead of a cell that may cover an area up to several miles in radius. Massive MIMO (multiple inputs multiple outputs) is increasing the number of antennas per cell base station from 100-200 to 1000 or more. The MIMO antennas are much more directional allowing more connections at once on the same frequency but in different directions.

There may also be some limited opportunities to demonstrate Beamforming. This third enabling technology is where the base station tracks a particular device and steers a very narrow radio signal directly to that device. However, Beamforming requires some cooperation from the handset (i.e. smartphone) to work efficiently so its use may be very limited for now.

Utilizing these two or three enabling technologies with attendees’ existing devices will be the real demo of importance. Even though “the application” will not be “visible” to the observer at the venue, the real story will be told by the data that will be scrutinized by information technologists who want to see that the base technologies really do scale. Rest assured, marketeers will “hype” the user demos to maximize demand and support for 5G.

The last of the enabling technologies, Mm-wave and Full Duplex, are focused at the actual radio interfaces of the devices and can only be used once new transceivers (mobile base band processors, power amplifiers, filters, and switches) have been developed for smartphones. Mm-wave is the addition of higher frequency radio bands. Our devices today operate up to 6 GHz. For 5G additional spectrum has been made available in the range of 6 to 100 GHz, providing significantly increased bandwidth. (Noted: mm-wave spectrum is properly defined as 30 to 300 GHz. Therefore, the term “Mm-wave” is being used loosely in the context of 5G.) Full Duplex refers to breakthroughs in semiconductor technology that enable building silicon switches to allow a transceiver to transmit and receive on the same frequency without interference. The use of Full Duplex in 5G will halve the number of frequencies required, effectively doubling spectrum capacity.

All the elements of a 5G ecosystem – from base stations to handsets – will require advanced semiconductors that will rely on innovations in packaging and testing. And these devices will pose significant technology challenges based on data rate and radio frequencies. For example, the routing or testing of a 80 GHz radio signal? Or testing multiple devices in parallel at this frequency? Once 5G becomes a reality, a tidal wave of additional devices will require even greater quantities of semiconductors. These new devices will bring their own challenges from ultra-high quality to extreme cost sensitivity while continuing to address the challenges of 5G itself.

With the usage of proper product road maps, driven by strategic planning and market research, there shouldn’t be any surprise challenges in the impending deployment of 5G. Just like the need for greater bandwidth, the overall direction and base technologies of 5G have long been well known. Even though the exact 5G specification is evolving and there has been a lot of noise about 5Gish technology, the fundamental challenges have remained the same. If your company hasn’t started to address these challenges, do so before it’s too late.

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.