You may not be sure of how much wireless data you use each month, but you can be pretty sure that in five years you’re going to use ten times more.
Much of that will continue to be streaming video (of ever higher resolution) and large multimedia files, but also brand new data-hungry services: Holographic phone calls, mobile virtual (and augmented) reality, autonomous driving, remote medical monitoring, and the — always elusive — fully connected smart home.
But for science fiction to be fact we need 5G cellular networks to be widely deployed. Most everybody is hoping for rollouts to be well under way by 2020 and the chances of that happening just improved dramatically: On July 14 of this year the Federal Communications Commission opened nearly 11 GHz of electromagnetic spectrum above 24 GHz (well into the so-called “millimeter wave” region) for 5G, a chunk that is four times larger than the total amount of licensed spectrum currently available for mobile services.
The FCC ruling is a major win for the wireless industry; higher frequencies translate to higher wireless throughput and allow the use of smaller antennas and base stations that can be closer to the user.
There’s one more hurdle:
While everybody agrees that 5G connectivity will have much higher speeds and capacity and much lower latency than existing cellular systems, there isn’t an official 5G standard yet; the group responsible, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, is not expected to release the first candidate for the official 5G standard definition till June of 2018.
Meanwhile, all the players in the wireless world, from chipmakers to carriers, are preparing to deal with the world of extremely high frequencies. As the creators of the hardware building blocks of the 5G cellular infrastructure, semiconductor makers are at the vanguard of this effort.
The need to carry more bits per second to more users, more efficiently, requires large-scale integration of components, along with higher performance and greater power savings. These are challenges that semiconductors have met in previous generations, but, at these frequencies, the bar is even higher. Advances will be needed in virtually all the functional areas of base station hardware: transceivers, clocking, data conversion, microprocessors and microcontrollers, and power management devices.