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Where is 5G? The Compound Semiconductor Industry Anxiously Awaits the Answer

by Eric Higham | Jun 30, 2015

We’ve arrived at the end of June and that always signals a change in the pace of life. June marks the start of the vacation period; students are on summer break and teachers are all taking deep breaths, decompressing from the past school year and planning for the next one. The rest of the working community is also likely to be anticipating going on vacation. A news report estimated that 20% of the work force is on vacation at any point during the summer months. Things get leisurely, even in sports. There are no shot clocks and no periods, so whether you are rooting for Tiger Woods to get his golf game back on track, for Rafael Nadal to win Wimbledon or for your local baseball team; those events take the time that they need to reach a conclusion.

The same seems to be true with ongoing 5G development efforts. Calling it a “leisurely pace” does a disservice to the enormous amount of effort that will be required to make 5G a reality. The term “5G” has been in our consciousness for nearly two years, but this represents a unique situation because 5G has no technical specification just yet. I read a piece in a magazine stating that up to this point, we’ve had standards before the “G” nomenclature; GSM became 2G, W-CDMA became 3G and LTE has become 4G. In this case, we have 5G, but no standards.

This appears to be changing, but leisurely! A few weeks ago, the ITU announced that they have established a roadmap for the development of 5G mobile and they have now coined the term “IMT-2020” to describe these efforts moving forward. Still no specifications, but this is a more official sounding name. The ITU is also starting to set boundaries for the performance discussion. The latest releases discuss peak data rates of 10 Gbps, hitting 20 Gbps under “certain conditions and scenarios”. While this is encouraging, there was also a bit of a reality check in the releases. The ones that I saw mentioned that the first systems where not expected to be in place by 2020. This is not terribly surprising, simply because of the timing of frequency allocations. Frequency harmonization tends to occur around World Radio Conference meetings. The thought I have heard expressed most frequently is that the WRC meeting in 2015 will define the sub-6 GHz portion of 5G…oops….IMT-2020, but the topic of higher frequencies will not be officially sorted out until the 2019 WRC meeting. The millimeter wave frequency bands seem like a likely destination for 5G services, because of the enormous amounts of bandwidth that is available in these bands. If these frequencies are not settled until 2019, widespread deployment of networks by 2020 has always seemed more like a wish and less like a true milestone. The drive for 2020 has always been the Summer Olympics in Japan. Global sporting events make for powerful technology drivers, as host countries try to demonstrate their technological superiority to attendees and the world. The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the 2018 World Cup in Russia have also been rumored to be pushing for 5G deployment in advance of the events. In fact, the releases stating deployments won’t be ready by 2020 also point to “demonstrations” of 5G networks in South Korea for the Winter Olympics. The push from Japan is strong, so I wouldn’t rule out some form of 5G network deployment for the Summer Olympics. I recently attended a conference where a representative from a leading Japanese mobile operator stated that their vision of 5G includes only the frequencies below 6 GHz that will be ratified at WRC2015. In their view, WRC2019 will ratify higher frequencies and these will be the basis for 5G+ networks deploying after 2025.

So, there is a lot of activity surrounding a standard that hasn’t been defined, using frequency bands that are still unknown with deployment not starting in earnest for perhaps 10 years, so what gives? I think there are two big reasons for this; one seems obvious, but the other may be a little less so. Let’s look at the not so obvious driver.

The graphic below shows works streams that Japanese mobile operator NTT DoCoMo established about two years ago, when 5G development activity began to heat up. As you can see from the chart, the lead companies in these activities are based in the Asia-Pacific region or Europe. The Asia-Pac presence is understandable because this region already contains countries having the highest broadband speeds, with South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong typically at or near the top of any list.

5G participants

Europe is a bit more interesting. Several European countries rank among the leaders in mobile broadband speeds, but the push to 5G seems more about regional identity in Europe. I have heard several European speakers and companies say that they feel like they missed on 4G and they don’t want that to happen again. At the end of May, the European Union and Japan signed an agreement to collaborate on 5G technology and invest €12 million over the next two years. At the announcement, a European Commissioner stated, “Such international agreements strengthen the position of the EU on the global stage and complement current efforts to create a Digital Single Market in Europe. By breaking down barriers and creating the right environment for innovative industries to develop, the EU will become an even more attractive and dynamic continent.” The importance that the EU is placing on 5G involvement is clear.

So, this is a compound semiconductor blog, but I’m more than 900 words in with no mention of anything semiconductor-related, but have no fear, it’s coming! The second driver for 5G, the obvious one, relates to compound semiconductors. The obvious reasons for 5G are the transformative applications and services that the standard (when it is defined) promises. Earlier, I mentioned the expected frequency timeline, with frequencies below 6 GHz ratified first. The working scenarios seem to be trending toward these first frequencies accommodating the volume of devices expected to connect to the Internet of Things. The higher frequencies will provide the bandwidth to enable the new data services and applications that will be the hallmark of 5G. This is where compound semiconductors will shine, as they are asked to provide solutions to the challenges of frequency, bandwidth, low latency, efficiency, linearity and many others.

5G has the possibility of providing a growth engine for the compound semiconductor industry that is as powerful as wireless is today, but the networks will have to overcome several technical challenges for 5G to realize its full potential. In yet another shameless plug, I have been asked to provide my thoughts on the state of 5G at the next Compound Semiconductor International Conference, sponsored by Compound Semiconductor Magazine. The conference is not until next March, so it will be very interesting to take another snapshot and report on the progress of all development efforts at that time. If you are a regular reader, you know this is not my first blog on 5G and it won’t be the last. 5G stands as watershed event for the entire electronics industry, not just compound semiconductors, so stay tuned for more developments and come see me in Brussels in March!

- Eric

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