After wrapping up the week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, one thing has become clear—5G is on everyone’s mind and the race to develop enabling technologies to make 5G a reality in the next 5 years is underway. During the conference, in between meetings and demos, I was able to tour the halls and view a series of 5G technologies, innovations and use cases which not only make 5G more real but exploit the promises that 5G will bring, namely low latency, high data rates, on-the-go connectivity, high user density, and highly reliable and secure communications.
Touring the tradeshow floor it felt as though the possibilities were endless for the fifth generation of mobile networks. Cellular carriers and WiFi companies were spotlighting their 5G solutions and a whole range of chipset offerings for the Internet of Things (IoT) proving that, although convergence on a common 5G specification is still some years away, we’ve reached the stage where the pipeline of 5G applications is well ahead of the standard, thus creating new business models and use cases. Many of the use cases leveraged technologies such as virtual reality, location awareness services, and push advertising addressing applications like real-time gaming to autonomous vehicles, just to name a few. And, the recent announcements from US telecoms to test 5G networks in “real-world” conditions mark the official entry into the 5G race. Many experts used the 2018 Olympics in Seoul as a proof point for 5G infrastructure deployment, with media and communications to fully exercise the network. One memorable moment of the show was during the panel keynote when Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg pulled a multi-element steerable phased array radio front end plus antenna out of his pocket. No larger than a deck of cards, Vestberg explained that three of these would make up a three-sector 5G base station to support multi-GBps data rates in a massive MIMO environment.
Today, the overall radio frequency (RF) chip market is hot. At its core, 5G and IoT will both require innovations in radio technologies, which in turn will push advances in semiconductor technologies. These innovations will include low power, integrated mmWave radio front ends, antenna phased array subsystems, high performance radio transceivers and high speed ADCs and DACs. As OEMs integrate more RF content into their smart phones and tablets and new high-speed network standards are introduced, the latest equipment requires additional RF circuitry to support newer modes of operation. This includes chips that support more LTE bands, carrier aggregation and envelope tracking.
As a lower cost and more flexible alternative to GaAs, radio frequency silicon-on-insulator (RF SOI) has established itself as the technology of choice for the majority of RF switches and antenna tuners manufactured today. The mobile market continues to favor RF SOI as it helps to solve the challenges that go along with ensuring users seamless, always available connectivity and access to the power of the Internet from virtually anywhere. Interest in and usages of silicon germanium (SiGe) technologies are also growing. SiGe technologies help address both the RF front-end module and high-performance market segments by offering excellent RF gain, noise, and linearity characteristics, even at millimeter wave frequencies. SiGe enables customers to integrate more function into fewer chips while getting improved performance, and expand their addressable market segments. Longer term, it is expected that foundry capacity will increase with the strong ramp in LTE smart phones, tablet PCs, and other mobile consumer applications.
Recently, GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ RF business unit crossed a new capacity threshold with our RF SOI chip shipments topping 20 billion, proving industry demand is strong.
With the growth of IoT and the emerging trials for 5G, there is no doubt that demand on our networks will continue to grow. Customers who exploit RF SOI and SiGe technologies develop solutions that enhance user experiences, including broader geographic mobility and faster data rates for the increasing interconnection of everyday applications.
So a global race is on, and it’s clear from the technology on display at Mobile World that RF and SiGe technologies play an even more important role in driving reduced complexity, higher performance, and lower overall cost over competing technologies.