Anyone looking for concrete evidence that the 5G-driven revolution in network connectivity is upon us, should have attended the recent GLOBALFOUNDRIES-sponsored panel at the MWC Barcelona exhibition (formerly the Mobile World Congress).
There, one of GF’s invited panelists displayed a 64-element 28 GHz silicon-based antenna that is available right now for use in millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G antenna arrays. Another spoke of China’s plans to install 200,000 5G basestations just this year alone, while a third highlighted the various semiconductor IP cores (‘IP’) that are now being used to design and produce 5G chips with GF’s differentiated manufacturing and packaging technologies.
Intelligent Connectivity for a Data-Driven Future was the theme of the GF event. Intelligent Connectivity refers to the increasingly complex, tightly tied inter-relationships among data centers, networks, and client (or “edge”) devices such as smartphones and Internet of Things (IoT) systems. These inter-relationships are data-driven and, increasingly, will be enabled by AI. They will reshape every industry they touch and transform our lives in many ways.
The event’s purpose was to share with MWC attendees the perspectives and opinions of experts whose participation in the 5G space ranges from market analysis, to the supply of key products, to the development of software design tools and services that enable the creation and testing of innovative application-specific 5G chips.
Explosive Growth in Connectivity
The GF event was moderated by Mike Cadigan, GF’s Senior VP for Global Sales, Business Development, Customer and Design Engineering, and it started off with an introductory presentation by Subi Kengeri, GF’s CTO and VP of Worldwide Client Solutions.
Subi outlined the explosive worldwide growth of wireless connectivity and the opportunities and challenges it brings. He stressed that, given the complexity of both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G applications, close collaboration is essential among network operators and providers of equipment, services and IP. He then outlined how the role of semiconductor manufacturers such as GF is evolving to make all this possible, and then touched on some of the specific benefits which GF’s differentiated technologies are bringing to 5G applications.
“It’s no news to anyone that we now live in a world of universal and growing connectivity, but the speed and scope with which this is happening is mind-boggling,” he said. “In 2017 there were 18 billion networked devices, or 2.4 connected devices for every person on the planet, but by 2022 – just three short years from now – that total will nearly double, to about 29 billion devices.”
In addition, while mobile data traffic right now is about 27 exabytes each month, by the end of 2024 it will reach roughly 136 exabytes. “That’s 136 quintillion bytes of data each and every month, and 5G is forecast to make up 25% of it,” he said. “Another way to put it is that more than 40% of the world’s population will be using 5G by then, which would make it the fastest wireless generation ever to be rolled out on a global scale.”
This fast growth and worldwide reach has huge implications for semiconductor design and manufacturing, starting with the very definition of the word “innovation,” he said.
“In the past we might have described innovation as the advances taking place at the leading-edge of chip technology, but today, it is naïve to suggest that innovation of that sort is what will support the massive deployment of 5G. Especially considering that it can cost over a half-billion dollars to design, verify, prototype and produce just one 5nm integrated circuit.”
Real innovation in the 5G space, he said, comes from the creation of devices that offer optimized 5G performance along with a balance of power, performance, RF capability and application-specific features. “Power consumption and cost per function are now the key metrics, not feature sizes,” he said, noting that a renaissance in established nodes is under way as existing processes are used to combine technology, features, capabilities and enablement in new ways.
GF is at the forefront of that trend, with a myriad of proven processes that are 5G-ready. Among them are 22FDX,which brings best-in-class power, performance and RF capabilities to many applications including mobility, and 8SW RF SOI technology which brings the industry’s leading power-optimized performance to mobile applications. GF also offers a range of packaging technologies, which are critical given the need to dissipate heat as more power is brought to 5G-capable endpoints.
Experts Describe the mmWave Landscape
Subi’s presentation was followed by a Q&A session with these panelists:
Mike Cadigan kicked off the discussion asking Joe why network operators such as phone companies would decide to move to 5G, and where things stand with regard to the rate and pace of 5G deployments. “The big picture is that for operators, 5G will dramatically lower their cost to transmit each GB of data,” he said. “2G networks enabled us to go from thousands of dollars to tens of dollars to transmit each GB. Today with LTE and small cells it’s about $1 per GB, and with mmWave it will be less than 10c per GB. So, mobile plans will start to look like fixed plans, with unlimited data offered.”
He said deployment won’t be uniform and will take some time to evolve fully. “Some international network operators, notably in Switzerland and China, have really latched onto it. For example, China is making a huge push with a rollout of 200,000 5G basestations planned for this year,” he said. “But deployment across the rest of the world will be more spotty, with Japan and South Korea among the early adopters.”
In the U.S. there won’t be a nationwide deployment; instead, “islands” of 5G will pop up within 4G networks. “In fact, 5G handsets are being introduced even though most networks haven’t even been deployed yet,” he said. (Not long after MWC Barcelona, Verizon announced 5G service will soon begin in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis, with unlimited data offered.)
Mike then turned it over to Alastair for his perspective on the technical requirements for 5G adoption. Alastair, who held up the 28 GHz silicon-based array he had brought with him for the audience to see, said that mmWave technology is a lot trickier than the sub-6GHz flavor of 5G, and that at the device level there’s a great need for more linear power. “Anything we can do to increase linear power in the silicon, we need to do,” he said.
“Also, thermal management has always been critical in radio transmission and it remains so. I kid you not, decades ago when phased-array radars first came out, some of the first ones got so hot they actually caught fire. So we’ve urgently got to increase power efficiency while taming the heat, and in the process also lower the cost per transmitter. You can do some of this with circuit tricks but fundamentally it starts with the silicon,” he said.
“What GLOBALFOUNDRIES has done for us is to develop some very good device options that let us choose different parameters to tailor a device to a particular application, so that, for example, we can increase the operating voltage and model the resulting reliability as we go along. It’s quite valuable and is an outgrowth of the deep collaboration between our two companies,” he said.
Joachim pointed out that it’s not easy to design complex systems-on-chips (SoCs), nor to ensure that they come out as designed. That is why Synopsys has partnered closely with GF to develop IP cores like Low Power DDR memory interfaces (LPDDR), high-bandwidth memory interfaces (HBM), PCI Express, and many more to improve the productivity of SOC designers and lower the project risk. “In addition to having access to many IP cores from Synopsys and other IP providers, designers today have access to high-level architectural explorations tools that allow then to optimize their SoC at the architectural level in the context of the actual software that will execute on the SoC.”
Cadigan closed by asking each of the panelists what more GF should be doing. Joachim said GF should do more of what it is already doing: “Complexity is going up, and that requires much closer collaborations.” Joe, meanwhile reiterated the importance of increased power. “Nobody is using filters now, but as we move forward there will be competing carriers in nearby frequency bands, so even more power will be needed.”
Alastair said that packaging options will only become more important, not just for heat dissipation but to accommodate increased levels of integration. Also, echoing Joachim, he said that modeling capabilities will grow more important, especially for reliability.