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The Year That Was…

December 13, 2013
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I was pleased to learn from a number of business leaders that 2013 was actually a pretty good year, ending with a strong finish despite a slow start. The companies that faired best were the ones with the right products for the complex systems that serve the public and private sectors. Suppliers to essential programs were often the ones who had invested in developing new technologies. 2013 offered many examples of technical innovation and we were pleased to publish these achievements. When it comes to technology, progress often occurs at the steady rate of Moore’s law. Among the evolution of advanced materials, semiconductors, new circuit architectures and computational algorithms to support smarter, more efficient communication networks, this year had its share of watershed moments.

Many of these were reflected in this year’s most popular articles online, including “Phase Noise Measurements and System Comparisons” by Rohde/Poddar of Synergy Microwave; “MIMO Radar: Demystified” by Brookner of Raytheon; RF CMOS technology “The New Mobile RF Front-end” by Carson/Brown of Qualcomm; “HTS Ka- vs. Ku-Band for Mission Critical SATCOM” by Pawling/Olds of Harris CapRock; and “Automotive Radar: From Its Origins to Future Ditrctions” by Meinel/Dickmann of Daimler AG.

Big developments for the mobile RFIC market were announced earlier in the year to coincide with Mobile World Congress. Several companies touted envelope tracking (ET) solutions to cover higher bandwidth architectures and future handset capabilities such as carrier aggregation, MIMO, and LTE-Advanced (LTE-A). Qualcomm achieved groundbreaking performance with a CMOS chip set solution that leveraged multiple innovations including a dynamic antenna matching tuner, envelope power tracking, an integrated PA/antenna switch and advanced 3D packaging. While the price or performance did not blow away products from other RF chip providers, the move did catch the attention of the industry, largely due to Qualcomm’s size and position in this cut-throat market.

While Qualcomm discussed details of its technology in our June issue, Skyworks demonstrated its fully integrated single front-end module with a featured article in our August issue. The engineering challenges in today’s RF front-ends was presented in our November supplement feature, “The Economics of GaAs and CMOS PAs” by Mobile Experts analyst Joe Madden. Next year, we will continue our look at evolving PA technology with a special report on performance enhancing techniques and a report on advances in multi-chip module technology and innovations in millimeter-wave packaging.

Semiconductor and packaging innovations are being driven by a multitude of emerging communication networks. LTE network deployments continued to grow rapidly worldwide with Time-division duplex (TDD) networks gaining more market traction. TD-LTE and LTE-A will dominate the LTE installed base of macro base stations as early as 2015 with SK Telecom, now upgrading its networks to LTE-A and China Mobile deploying a massive TD-LTE network (over 200,000 base stations). According to analysts from ABI research “LTE-A will progress in a phased rollout with carrier aggregation implemented first, followed by the eICIC, CoMP, Enhanced MIMO and HetNet support features which will all help operators address the upsurge in network traffic.”

With China Mobile’s massive deployment of base stations, the active antenna market heated up with roughly 500,000 beamforming antenna units deployed this year alone. Active antenna systems provide the necessary capacity boost in mobile networks when less expensive HetNet alternatives are not available. In the evolution of HetNet architecture, look for all different kinds of radio solutions: femtocells, picocells, microcells, metrocells, DAS systems, repeaters, and macro base stations, which will serve as the foundation for ongoing research into carrier Wi-Fi, backhaul and semiconductors for small cells.

In other sectors, the total market for open short-range wireless (SRW) ICs, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, NFC and GPS, reached nearly 5 billion units in 2013 and is expected to grow to 8 billion by 2018. SRW technologies enabled low-cost connectivity between devices, helping make 2013 the year that the Internet of Everything (IoE) became more of a reality. Fitting with this month’s theme, the Millennium Research Group reported that RF and microwave ablation devices will be the fastest growing segment in the U.S. nonvascular interventional radiology device market. The microwave-enabled devices offer a minimally invasive alternative to traditional surgical treatment of various cancers. The increasing popularity of minimally invasive treatments should help the overall market to grow to $295 million by 2017.

Interest in China helped make the first ever Electronic Design Innovation Conference (EDI CON) a success in 2013. Participating companies helped define an event in which the technical program focused on practical design issues with content from industry for engineers. At EDI CON, companies presented educational information in live workshops, which provided a level of interaction not possible with white papers, educational videos or even webinars alone. This year, companies increasingly recognized that education is an essential part of developing new markets. Innovators are necessary to create and serve new markets. If 2013 proved that such innovators fared better during uncertain economic times, we look forward to helping spread the knowledge that produces more of them.

Recent Articles by David Vye, Editor, Microwave Journal

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