I have never witnessed anything in our industry with as much buzz and market reaction as 5G. There has never been a time where the standards organizations actually compressed their time frame as they have done for 5G. While the last couple of years have produced a lot of hype, I think the industry is coming to terms with what is practical from a technology standpoint and what makes sense from a business point of view. Mobile Experts’ Joe Madden recently wrote how he does not think femtocells or robotic surgery will take off because there is currently not a good business model to support them. He thinks small cells in the 3.5 GHz band (Citizens Broadband Radio System) will take off as there are several significant business applications and favorable cost models to support them. Next year, we will start seeing some of the winning applications and technologies with some limited 5G launches.
While many experts had doubted that mmWave technology would be mature enough for early 5G deployments, Fixed Wireless Access at the 28 and 39 GHz bands is being tested for deployment next year. This along with satellite applications has quickly advanced commercial phased array technology, and we see 28 and 39 GHz arrays hitting the market. We have even seen companies testing mmWave handset technology although this seems further away from realization. The production of 802.11ad products at 60 GHz will also drive mmWave, phased array technology and help drive down the cost.
The test and measurement industry is leading the way as they have to develop their systems in advance of the device manufacturers. They have emphasized software driven modular systems in order to build in flexibility to use their systems for the changing needs of their customers. They have also developed more system level test setups and emulators to test various scenarios that would take too much time to do in the field and cost too much to be practical (think of billions of autonomous vehicle or airborne radar scenarios to test). This seems like an area of significant advancement as we implement hardware in the loop or similar practices in the A&D and automotive safety/autonomy markets; expect it to make its way into other markets soon.
Another hot market to watch is autonomous vehicles, which are also coming faster than many realize. While these have been in development for many years, the sensor technologies are finally available and meet both the cost and safety levels needed for commercialization. For the RF and microwave market, this primarily involves mmWave radar sensors that are moving to wider bandwidths for better resolution. At this year’s European Microwave Week in Nuremberg, all of the major test and measurement companies were demonstrating radar test systems and the semiconductor companies were developing more highly integrated, lower cost modules.
An interesting trend is the development of USB powered, miniature test equipment such as VNAs and spectrum analyzers that are small and light enough to be put on low cost commercial drones. This is enabling many new applications such as drone borne radar measurements for mapping various things on the ground and spectrum monitoring over wide areas; both at a fraction of the cost of previous methods or not even possible in some cases.
In semiconductors, silicon on insulator (SOI) technology has emerged as a low cost, high performance platform for highly integrated solutions for 5G, IoT and automotive applications. RF applications have previously used older silicon nodes as digital applications and pushed the state-of-the-art, but now RF processes are being released on advanced nodes like 28 and 16 nm processes. This is enabling high performance system on chip designs at relatively low costs compared to previous generations even at mmWave frequencies. Other CMOS/BiCMOS processes are also becoming more capable with higher cutoff frequencies supporting many RF applications.
GaN continues to expand into more markets as it reduces its cost structure. It is finally a strong competitor to LDMOS in the large cellular infrastructure market and several six inch GaN lines are coming online around the world. The interesting battle is GaN-on-SiC versus GaN-on-Si as MACOM and OMMIC attempt to really drive down the cost structure with larger wafers and lower cost Si substrates. Most of the other manufacturers believe the thermal properties of SiC are the only way to achieve the performance needed with GaN devices. I believe 2018 will be the year that GaN-on-Si either proves itself worthy to take a significant share of the larger volume markets or be overtaken by GaN-on-SiC.
It will be interesting to see how these trends develop over the next year and what new trends will emerge in 2018. A couple of areas that should continue to be active are, of course, 5G, as the 3.5 GHz bands should take off, and massive MIMO and higher orders of carrier aggregation should emerge as technologies to increase capacity in the first 5G networks. Additive manufacturing looks to re-shape the way we build complicated structures like antennas and waveguides, another growing market. Although many talk about IoT taking off, there still seems to be too many network standards and too much confusion in the market applications that I think it will take another year to sort through. Let me know your comments and feedback online.
From the Microwave Journal Team, best wishes for 2018 and happy holidays!