Reading the signs: 5G is coming

-October 13, 2017

Ericsson recently announced a new 5G design center, and collaborations with both Singtel and VodafoneZiggo to roll out 5G networks. Xilinx introduced a programmable RF system-on-a-chip (SoC) for 5G systems. Fujitsu Laboratories is just out with a millimeter wave (mmWave) phase shifter for small cells. Announcements of basic components and design services required to build commercial products such as small cells and base stations are gradually increasing in frequency, adding to the mounting evidence that the 5G market is on the verge of taking off in earnest.

One in 10 communications companies claim to have deployed 5G technology already, according to a recent survey (see: With 5G technology, the time is now). The survey did not ask what precisely has been deployed, but it is certain that some of those deployments are evolutions of infrastructure to support software defined networking and network function virtualization. SDN and NFV are considered critical enablers of the heightened utility and expanded flexibility that will be hallmarks of 5G networks.

Some parts of the 5G standard are close to being finalized, but nothing has been ratified yet. Furthermore, many of the constituent technologies (e.g., mmWave RF, beamforming, MIMO, etc.) are either new or not commonly used. The industry has a learning curve to climb and it has yet to progress very far up the initial slope.

Taken together, the recent set of announcements can be considered an indicator that the industry is beginning to surge up that slope. That some of the components announced recently are relatively basic elements of larger systems can be taken as indication that there is plenty of climbing still ahead.

Ericsson said its Austin ASIC Design Center will design ASICs and SoCs–the core microelectronics of 5G radio base stations. The company is looking to have its first hires in the design center working by the end of this year. Industry watchers can infer that Ericsson expects to start getting business by early 2018. The company currently anticipates having 80 designers on staff by mid-year next year.

Ericsson is looking for ASIC and SoC designers, and for ASIC verification engineers. Experience is  clearly preferred, but all applicants might not be expected to have it; it promises plenty of opportunity to learn. “You will have a unique opportunity to work and gain competence in several areas such as modeling (TLM), RTL-design, verification, systemization, integration, synthesis, timing and SW development,” the job description for the designers reads.

A traditional phase shifter, with four amps, compared to Fujitsu Laboratories' new two-amp design is shown. Cutting the number of amps in half cuts their power consumption in half too. Source: Fujitsu

Singtel tapped Ericsson as its development partner for 5G two years ago. Singtel and Ericsson are establishing a 5G center of excellence in Singapore, to be funded with roughly $1.5 million over the next three years. The new center will be the locus for Ericsson 5G specialists to pass on their knowledge to Singtel engineers.

VodafoneZiggo similarly has an ongoing contract with Ericsson for 5G equipment and services that was just extended through 2020. The two said VodafoneZiggo will start deploying “5G-ready” radio systems that will eventually support high speed cellular service for individual users and narrowband IoT and CAT-M1 services for enterprise customers.

Narrowband IoT and CAT-M1 are both low-power wide area network (LP-WAN) technologies, both suitable for IoT applications. Both operate in spectrum separate from the swaths set aside for LTE/4G and 5G, and can be delivered on LTE network equipment.

This is a good time for a reminder about a confusing aspect of 5G. It is tied intimately to use cases; fixed wireless is one, IoT is another. The confusion stems from the fact that while some IoT use cases require 5G technology (applications whose key requirement is low-latency applications), others can be rolled out on LTE networks (applications whose key requirement is low-power operation).

Xilinx introduced a new family of Zynq RFSoCs, some optimized for 5G (the others are for advanced cable infrastructure or for advanced radar applications, both of which share some fundamental characteristics). The Zynq devices combine RF data converters and SD-FEC (forward error correction) cores with ARM-based multiprocessing, comprising what Xilinx said is a complete analog-to-digital signal chain. “While RF to digital signal conditioning and processing is typically segmented into stand-alone subsystems, the Zynq UltraScale+ RFSoC brings analog, digital, and embedded software design onto a single monolithic device for system robustness,” the company said.

Fujitsu Laboratories has developed mmWave circuit technology to create lower-power phase shifters, which will be used in base stations to control the phase of signals to antenna elements. Base stations will include antenna arrays with 8, 16, 32, 64, or as many as 128 elements. These antennas will be able to dynamically direct signals; this process is beamforming. Phase shifters are used to control the direction of the antenna elements.

Fujitsu explained that to date, every phase shifter has required four amps. The company claims its new phase shifters require only two. Cutting the number of amps in half cuts phase shifter power consumption in half. Fujitsu said its technology “successfully reduced power consumption to 3W when used with 128 antenna elements.” The company claims its phase shifters are also more accurate.
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