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Independence Day, 5G & the Compound Semiconductor Industry

by Eric Higham | Jun 30, 2016

In the US, July 4th is our “Independence Day”. This is a big summer holiday celebrating our independence from England and it’s a time for cookouts, sun, sand, water, fun and food. As we prepare for that long weekend, I got to thinking about the holiday, the movie and parallels to 5G and the compound semiconductor industry! Bear with me as I try to explain the thought process.

In addition to being the biggest summer holiday in the US, “Independence Day” is also a movie originally released in 1996, with a sequel recently released for its 20th anniversary. The original movie chronicled the arrival of a group of alien space ships that positioned themselves over major cities around the globe.  Everyone gets very excited by the confirmation of extraterrestrial life, the possibilities of technical exchange with the aliens and all the new opportunities that will be unlocked. However, like any good alien disaster movie, things take a turn for the worse very quickly!

This is a “go-to” movie for some people and a particular favorite of mine.  Even though there is (movie) destruction, it is hard not to be in awe when the Empire State Building in New York City, the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles and even the White House get completely obliterated simultaneously. I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot, but there are some undeniable parallels to the trajectory of 5G and what it may mean for compound semiconductors…minus the destruction, of course!

We’ve probably all had the experience of looking at some sort of presentation and a trend becomes clear. Whether that is time-based data in an Excel spreadsheet or a statistical distribution of results, often times a trend becomes obvious. Then the question becomes whether you say something in hopes of changing the trend, or continue to monitor. When the aliens arrived in Independence Day, satellite communications began suffering from interference. Everyone attributed this to the differences in technology from the alien ships, but one of the main characters noticed a pattern. In this case the trend was diminishing intervals in the interference spectrum and he determined this was a triangulation signal counting down to the start of an attack on Earth (and all the destruction mentioned earlier).

So, where are the parallels to 5G? Well, we are all very excited about the new opportunities and technology that 5G will spawn. We are also a bit uncertain how this situation will unfold and what it all means. I am also starting to wonder if there is a trend in the “interference pattern” of 5G developments. Without question, there is an enormous amount of development activity and progress. Most of the major operators are working with most of the major equipment manufacturers to demonstrate and test major new features of the 5G network. The 3GPP standards body has coined the term “New Radio” (NR) to acknowledge how the 5G radio will be different from current technology. MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) and particularly “massive MIMO” antenna technology, with discussions about the definition of “massive” and the sweet spot for the array size have become burning network discussions in the industry.

Much like when the aliens showed up in Independence Day, no one is quite sure what to make of all this activity. Ask an “expert” about the benefits of 5G and you are likely to get some variation of “it will enable users to do most anything” and at this early stage of development, that vision is a valid, admirable goal. The image at the end of this blog is from a recent Qualcomm webinar. It shows a great graphic about the network challenges inherent in the enhanced mobile broadband, critical machine communications and massive machine communications pillars of 5G. None of the individual pillars assigns high importance to all of the features, but to address all of the pillars, the network has to be able to assign high importance to all the features. In addition, what advances are needed for fixed and mobile terminals to take advantage of all the envisioned 5G network features?

So, what is the trend and how does it affect the direction of the compound semiconductor market? I am sensing that the compound semiconductor content in 5G will be inversely related to the speed and success of 5G network deployments. Let’s consider that for a moment. If 5G networks are wildly successful and broadly deployed with orders of magnitude improvement in data rates, capacity, latency, efficiency, cost, connection density, mobility speeds, etc., then the silicon industry will be very happy! The most likely way for or all of that to happen is for cell sizes to shrink, RF transmit power to drop, beamforming and MIMO to become more sophisticated, capability to get pushed to devices on the edge, backhaul capability to increase by orders of magnitude, etc. These developments all align with what silicon technology does well.

As I said earlier in the blog, when you see a trend, you either say something or you continue monitoring. With 5G, I will do both; I’ve just said something and I will continue to monitor. I am still a firm believer in the ability of 5G to be transformative for the electronics industry and society, in general and I believe 5G will be good for the compound semiconductor industry. It is not reasonable to expect that 5G will come out of the gate meeting all the requirements of the vision. It is far more likely that 5G evolves to the vision over a long period of time. The challenge for the compound semiconductor industry will be to enable the performance improvements that 5G networks and terminals will demand and be prepared to obsolete these products with the next generation as soon as the need arises. This will prevent the requirements of 5G from outpacing the capabilities of the compound semiconductor technologies.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday and if you get a chance, tune into one of what I’m sure will be many showings of the movie “Independence Day” on your TV!

  • Eric

5G Features
Source: ITU Recommendation ITU-R M.2083-0, September 2015

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