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What does another "G" mean to the semiconductor industry?

by Eric Higham | 6月 27, 2014

As July approaches, the pace of life slows. Schools in the US adjourn for the summer, traffic around Boston eases (somewhat) and businesses around the world prepare for a bit more leisurely tempo. This is a great time to reflect on the “current state” and to speculate on what the future holds.

Today, I am excited about prospects for the future! I had the opportunity to participate in a Microwave Journal panel session entitled “Path to 5G: - Design and Test Challenges for the Future” at the recently concluded IMS2014 conference. I did a short presentation (saved on our website as 5G: The Next Big Semiconductor Opportunity?) that looked at the problems that 5G is trying to solve, some of the goals and some of the companies involved.

There is very little defined about “5G” and normally, I would be skeptical about a development that has a catch phrase before any details. So, what’s different in this case? First, there are many high-profile companies working to influence the direction of 5G. Within the past week, Google announced the acquisition of Alpental Technologies, a wireless start-up specializing in 60 GHz connectivity solutions. In addition, NTT DoCoMo released the following graphic to illuminate details, along with partners for what they are calling “experimental trials” of the as yet to be defined 5G network.

5G seeks to address the challenges imposed by a data consumption trend that shows very little evidence of changing its trajectory. The stated goals of 5G are data rates up to 10 Gbps, an increase of up to 1000x on the mobile data volume in a given area, lower latency, 10-year battery life for low power devices and acknowledging that connected devices may increase by a factor of 100!

In addition to an impressive roster of companies, NTT DoCoMo is envisioning a network that should rely heavily on high performance semiconductors. Looking at the work streams that each company is exploring, we see concepts like remote radio heads (RRH), beamforming with a large number of antennas, massive MIMO, “super-wideband” hybrid and single carrier beamforming, while acknowledging the importance of mobile broadband and M2M in the future. Also shown in the chart is the march toward higher frequencies, with the bulk of the activity at frequency ranges greater than 5 GHz. This likely explains Google’s acquisition and foray into wireless connectivity.

So, I am excited because we have a roster of some of the most innovative companies on the planet beginning the development process that will ultimately lead to standards for 5G. The goals of these developments are ambitious, so the semiconductor technologies must be up to the task. It would not be surprising to see 5G research fund process and product developments well beyond what we consider as “state-of-the-art” today. The most exciting part of the 5G journey is that estimates of the semiconductor market for wireless communications currently exceeds $300B!

This is a huge opportunity and very necessary to address the anticipated growth in data consumption. However, before any of the semiconductor manufacturers look to expand capacity there are a few caveats. First, standards aren’t expected until sometime after 2020, so network deployment might happen in 10 years or so. Secondly, the semiconductor opportunity is only huge if operators believe they can develop a successful business model. We can’t lose sight of the fact that “someone” has to pay the bill for a network upgrade. Ultimately, that “someone” is the consumer through new services and products, but the “someone” that has to fund the initial network deployment is the operator and service provider community and they will have to justify some large capital expenditures. While this may mean a more gradual deployment than semiconductor companies would like, it will still provide an engine for expansion in the wireless industry. These are exciting times, indeed!

Eric

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