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Unpacking 5G

July 6, 2017
What makes 5G unique is its ability to expand cellular communications beyond just handsets and make connectivity an integrated part of our everyday life.

Today, 5G is a catchall for the next generation(s) of cellular networks.  What makes 5G unique is that unlike the previous generations it has two aspects. The first deals with the evolution of mobile broadband, which just over 25 years ago started out with voice applications transforming to voice and text, followed by the addition of emails and then multimedia. Today's handsets are full-blown mobile computing platforms. 5G will bring gigabit speeds to handsets.

Now let’s talk about the revolutionary aspects of 5G…

Once network speeds reach gigabit downloads, cellular will be in direct competition with cable and DSL as it will be able to enter markets dominated today by the traditional internet service providers (ISPs)—that’s reasonably straightforward. Many wireless operators are already in trials for Fixed Wireless Access services.

Beyond that, 5G will also have provisions for ultra-reliable and low-latency connectivity that will enable real-time applications such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-everything (V2X), industrial automation, remote robotic surgeries, and others commonly classified as critical machine-type communications (cMTC)

On top of that, the standard will also enable low-energy, low-bit-rate, seamless connectivity for billions of new IoT devices that will need to be supported on the network, too. These can range from monitoring pumps on a remote oil rig to a pacemaker installed in a patient’s heart.

Again, this is why some call 5G a catchall, since it enables so many more applications beyond the consumer handsets that make up the bulk of cellular communications today . The standards will be released in multiple phases. The first one, due to arrive by the end of 2018, is expected to address enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). That will be followed by releases for MTC.

Which technology will dominate 5G: massive MIMO, sub-6-GHz, or mmWave?

The answer is all of the above, and then some! The main enablers for gigabit connectivity are: carrier aggregation (for speed); higher-order modulation (better compression, for speed and capacity); spectrum expansion—add shared/unlicensed spectrum to the available 40-plus licensed bands (for capacity); and massive MIMO, also known as full-dimension MIMO (for both capacity and coverage). So, in short, all of the above will be used for eMBB.

To start with, sub-6-gigahertz spectrum will be used with the anchor carrier in the licensed bands and additional carriers in the licensed/shared/unlicensed spaces. This will remain a better choice for wide-area and in-building coverage. Beamforming done with the knowledge of horizontal and vertical coordinates of the intended user, rather than with traditional, semi-isotropic radiating antennas, will improve spectrum efficiency and, thereby, capacity and coverage. Future releases will add capacity by including mmWave spectrum where there’s still a lot of unused bandwidth available.

This simplified block diagram shows the essential components that comprise the transmit chain of a base station.

When will 5G be available?

Rel15 will be the first true 5G NR standard—it’s expected to be released by the end of 2018. Up until then, LTE Advanced Pro and subsequent Rel14 releases will pave the way to pre-5G, gigabit LTE. Pre-commercial trials are to continue through 2018, with commercial 5G deployments starting in 2019. By the end of 2018, we also expect to start seeing increased trial activity in mmWave bands. Subsequent releases will keep adding more functionality.

How will 5G impact semiconductor revenues?

As reported by IHS in March 2017, chip sales in 2016 were $352 billion. Nearly one-third of the global semiconductor output was consumed by a singular application: the cellular handset. With its goal to integrate connectivity into all aspects of our lives, it’s safe to say that whatever figures the pundits come up with for 5G, the results will be beyond our wildest imaginations.

Just remember the prevailing mindset regarding the internet in the early 1990s. No one disputed that it was going to be big, but 25 years ago, who would have imagined the impact it was going to have on technology, business, global economy, and everyday life?

How does NXP plan to participate in 5G markets? In particular, what RF products do we plan on offering for base stations?

Any communication system comprises two parts—one for connectivity, the other for computing and the glue that brings it all together. Between our various business units, NXP will provide solutions across the board.

Two current product lines are developing RF power amplifier solutions from sub-gigahertz to mmWave for 5G infrastructure applications. NXP has access to a large, advanced collection of RF technologies, including Si LDMOS, GaN, GaAs, SiGe, and RFCMOS, amongst others, in addition to products from megahertz to mmWaves, to cover all 5G RF amplification needs.

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