The wireless industry continues to anticipate the technology shift to 5G. While 5G offers chances for strong growth, several factors will make reaping benefits from this generation of wireless broadband technology more challenging than it was for its predecessors.
Consider the current situation for electronic test-and-measurement (ETM) manufacturers. What generates growth in the wireless ETM business is the combination of new handset models, an increasing number of annual handset shipments, and wireless technology advances that drive new infrastructure equipment. With the promise of 5G on the horizon, ETM manufacturers are coping with a slowing market for 4G test equipment, led by increased competition, fewer customers, and delays in deployment.
I spoke with Randy Oltman, RF and High-Speed Systems Applications Manager at Analog Devices, about how ETM manufacturers can combat these challenges to prepare for and benefit from 5G.
Randy Oltman, High-Speed Systems Applications Manager, Analog Devices
How does the transition to 5G differ from past generations?
As wireless broadband technology has evolved from generation to generation, ETM manufacturers have often adapted to the changes by relying on software upgrades. However, the move to 5G is going to be a huge step forward that will require new and far more complex solutions. 5G will ultimately bring faster speed, reduced latency, increased capacity, and improved reliability. However, new and less familiar technologies also are associated with the shift, such as millimeter-wave transmission, massive MIMO, and adaptive beamforming—all of which will demand significantly more advanced base stations and customer devices with more complicated test needs.
What is one of the biggest 5G challenges facing ETM manufacturers?
One of the biggest roadblocks for ETM manufacturers to overcome is the fact that 5G standards are still in flux. While key aspects of the standard have gained agreement within the industry, others are still in play, ranging from band combinations for deployment of non-standalone to test methodologies.
The committed date for Release 15 is December 2017. But it is normal for 3GPP to follow up with significant work on detailing and correcting a release long after the headline date is achieved, especially in the area of test specifications. And similar to past generations of wireless technology, operators have a strong desire to be the first with deployed networks, ultimately intensifying the need for ETM equipment early in the technology lifecycle. In order to research, develop, and test the new technologies behind 5G, ETM equipment will have to deliver far more advanced capabilities than previous generations of equipment.
Exacerbating the challenge is slowing growth in the LTE ETM equipment sector, which has left some manufacturers with far fewer resources to devote to 5G innovation and development.
Are there any new technology issues that you think stand out for ETM manufacturers?
The most substantial change to the 5G physical layer is the option for millimeter-wave transmission coupled with adaptive beamforming, which requires a large number of antenna elements. While millimeter-wave transmission is a familiar technology for point-to-point, line-of-sight wireless backhaul, using those frequencies in a cellular topology, where each cell serves hundreds or thousands of shadowed mobile users, is a daunting challenge. Achieving millimeter-wave success in mobile will require new antenna technology where many antennas will be integrated into advanced device packaging, which is challenging existing test methodologies at both type approval and production.
To ultimately succeed, instrumentation, wireless infrastructure, semiconductor, and software organizations need to combine forces with standards bodies, research organizations, and government regulators worldwide. By working together, the wireless industry can ensure that 5G is a unified standard addressing the many challenging performance goals, including unprecedented speed, connection density, and ubiquity.
How can ETM manufacturers collaborate to benefit from 5G?
To date, ETM manufacturers appear to be gaining a better foothold in the 5G market by forming partnerships and alliances with suppliers. Knowledge sharing and close collaboration with both operators and suppliers is essential to timely delivery of new test products with features that are best aligned to early market needs. Nondisclosure agreements and other proprietary arrangements are also giving manufacturers preliminary access to new ideas and emerging technologies to accelerate delivery of 5G test capabilities.
How will ETM manufacturers meet the challenge to develop ahead of 5G standards?
With the desire to reduce time-to-market and meet the demands of 5G, ETM manufacturers need to develop equipment prior to standards being finalized. Because 5G standards will remain in flux for the foreseeable future, working with the right supplier early in the design process can give manufacturers access to high-performance solutions across the entire signal chain, from millimeter wave to bits that can survive inevitable changes to standards. In that way, even as the 5G standard changes, there will be no need to scrap the original hardware design.
How is Analog Devices positioned to help the industry through the 5G transition?
Analog Devices is the leading supplier of data converters and RF signal-chain components for the test-and-measurement industry. We recently announced new high-speed converters that advance the state of the art on speed and fidelity addressing the wider bandwidth and performance needs of 5G. These converters also contain a significant portion of the signal processing that’s traditionally found within the FGPA in the instrument. This signal processing provides both filtering and required up/down conversion and offers the flexibility to adapt to changing the needs of channel bandwidth and aggregation.
Analog Devices is also building out complete signal chains, including RF and millimeter-wave circuitry, to understand and solve the associated design challenge before our customer. The goal of these efforts is to build representative signal-chain architectures that meet the current and future needs of the instrumentation community. These efforts will pay dividends when our customers design their latest 5G, millimeter-wave, or IoT test solution, reducing design uncertainty and speeding time-to-market.
And finally, we work very closely with our customers to provide both an early look and allow input to what’s being designed so that we are closer to the mark upon release. This level of collaboration is core to ADI’s philosophy, and it’s critical to how we partner with customers to stay on the leading edge of the industry.
Randy Oltman is Systems Applications Manager for RF and High Speed Instrumentation at Analog Devices, Wilmington, Mass. In his current role, Randy is responsible for applications, business development, and marketing for the test and measurement industry, focusing on RF and high-speed applications. Randy has over 20 years of experience in the test and measurement industry, including roles in design, engineering management, and product management. His patents include technology for drive test reproduction in laboratory environments and auto-location technologies for concert environments.