by Mark Wallace, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Sales – Keysight Technologies
MPD: The defense market for RF and microwave components through subsystems appears to be more lucrative than in recent years, especially in the area of electronic warfare. If your company sells into the defense market, what are your thoughts about how it will perform in 2017?
Globally, the electronic warfare (EW) market continues to draw a lot of interest in the defense community as militaries push for innovative technologies to address spectrum management and signals intelligence. In addition, there is increasing demand for test equipment such as agile signal generators that support testing of EW systems and subsystems on the R&D bench through effective emulation of complex multi-emitter signal environments. Based on these trends (and others), Keysight believes this market is likely to outpace the growth of other aerospace and defense segments in 2017.
MPD: The fifth generation of cellular is rapidly approaching and the immense scope of 5G seems almost certain to present significant opportunities for the RF and microwave industry. What is your perspective on this issue?
As with previous generational transitions, the opportunities in RF and microwave abound because 5G affects all facets of the commercial communications industry and places significant demands on all enabling technologies. For example, the 3GPP is the focal point of a tremendous effort to define a new radio access technology (3GPP “New RAT” or NR), and this will place new demands on the radio systems—from the modems to the RFICs and front-end modules (FEMs) to the antennas. This “new radio” has three main drivers: new spectrum, capacity demands, and new operating models.
- New spectrum: Keysight has been engaged with the major players as the 5G vision has progressed from early research to full-scale development. Judging from recent activity, the industry is dead serious about millimeter-wave (mmWave). While there has been talk about mmWave “going mainstream” for at least 30 years, the adoption of these frequencies by the mobile communications industry coupled with support from spectrum policy makers is evidence of a huge change. This is driving significant advances in semiconductors, baseband processing, and antennas. Consequently, we are seeing increases in our mmWave business and see very positive signs of future growth.
- Capacity demands: Even with the addition of new spectrum, the drive for increasingly efficient use of existing spectrum is relentless. As a result, RF and microwave investments and opportunities in these more traditional frequencies are clearly visible. One significant facet of 3GPP’s NR is the ability to handle an increasingly flexible set of use models, ranging from low-data/high-mix to very high data rate and low latency. This means the radio systems need new designs for efficient use of spectrum and energy. In addition, the next phase of MIMO innovation around three-dimensional channel models and massive MIMO will continue to drive impressive work in antennas and signal-processing technologies.
- New operating models: Spectrum and spectral-efficiency issues are not unique to frequencies above 20 GHz. Many new spectrum rules for frequencies below 6 GHz involve requirements for sharing spectrum, not just between operators but also with non-commercial entities (e.g., military radar). This requires cognitive radio technology and device-to-device communications technology as well as more innovation in antennas and MIMO. Clearly, radio engineers have their work cut out for them; that means an exciting time for them and us as we move to a much more connected world.
MPD: The Internet of Things (IoT) might better be called the Wireless Internet of Things, as without RF and microwave technology, little could be accomplished. If your company is selling into this market, please provide your perspective on IoT and its prospects for the RF and microwave industry.
Much of the future growth of the wireless and electronics industry is certainly linked to IoT. As a result, IoT represents a huge opportunity for many players in the RF and microwave industry, including chipset developers, device developers, OEMs, manufacturers, equipment vendors, and operators.
We see many companies reorganizing themselves to focus on IoT, and they are making commitments regarding the connectivity of their future products. As they pursue connectivity in IoT, they will need to address two key items: adopting an IoT architectural model and overcoming fundamental challenges in the design of IoT devices.
- Architectural model: In IoT, a simple model consists of a device layer containing “things” with sensors and actuators that capture or initiate physical events. These connect to gateway devices using short-range wireless links, and the gateways communicate to the cloud via wide-area networks such as LTE. Across a variety of vertical industries, the realization of IoT networks will involve a heterogeneous mix of wireless technologies: NB-IoT, Cat M, Z-Wave, ZigBee, SIGFOX, LoRa, ANT, Thread, Wi-SUN, and more. Individually and collectively, these pose challenges such as power dissipation, transmission range, data rates, and radio compliance. And, of course, this diversity in deployed technologies presents a significant opportunity for the entire RF and microwave industry.
- Design challenges: Developers must overcome issues with battery drain, power, signal integrity, and the complexities of the RF chain. Common signal integrity issues include reflections, excessive losses, crosstalk, distortion, and power supply noise that can degrade overall system performance. Engineers also have a need to measure dynamic current drain that can vary by as much as 1:1,000,000 as devices switch modes from low activity to high activity. The sensitivity of receiver antennas is crucial and can have a significant impact on battery life. Technologies such as NB-IoT are governed by 3GPP, requiring RF conformance testing before deployment on networks. Interference and coexistence condition must also be verified.
We believe end-to-end solution providers operating in vertical industries and delivering services using cloud analytics will be the most successful at monetizing a large portion of the value in IoT. The sheer volume of wireless devices, the complexities of radio technologies, the small form factors, and the extended life expectations make it rich with opportunities for the entire wireless RF and microwave industry.
MPD: In your opinion, what are the RF and microwave technologies to watch in 2017?
In 2017, mmWave technology will be one to watch, specifically developments with integrated tools in design, simulation, measurement, and analysis of devices capable of working at these higher frequencies. We believe the need for these full solutions will increase as more application areas utilize the newly opened mmWave spectrum: 5G wireless communications, next-generation wireless LAN (e.g., 802.11ad), satellite communications, automotive radars, connected highways, self-driving cars, and EW.
The underlying semiconductor technologies will also be worth watching. Specific to 5G, one especially difficult area is the power amplifier (PA) modules used in handsets. Historically, PA designs have been dominated by indium gallium phosphide (InGaP) heterogeneous bipolar transistor (HBT) technology; however, silicon (Si) has made significant inroads during the last few years.
5G will bring higher handset frequencies, likely in the 28 or 39 GHz range, along with the need for beam forming or electronically steerable arrays (ESAs). Beam forming implies there will be multiple antennas, each potentially with its own PA along with circuitry to adjust phase and amplitude. This has two implications: the power needed from each antenna will be cut by approximately 1/N, where N is the number of antennas, making an Si-based approach more practical; and the integration capabilities of Si will be ideally suited to creating highly integrated chips containing the required beam-steering circuitry (this is significantly more challenging in III-V semiconductor-based technologies). Thus, the need for beam forming may favor Si approaches even though 5G frequencies may tilt the scales toward III-V technologies.
It will be interesting to see which technology is ultimately the dominant choice for 5G handsets. For example, it might be expected that III-V technologies will once again have an advantage given their higher fT*BV figure-of-merit, enabling the greater PA efficiency that is critical to maximizing battery life in handsets. These designs could be done in scaled InGaP HBT processes, InP HBT processes, or other III-V material systems.