by Barry Manz, President – Manz Communications, Inc.
Every year as the microwave community troops to the International Microwave Symposium, questions remain unanswered about how the current year will treat the industry. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an eternal optimist to be bullish for 2017, as there are multiple opportunities in many markets, some of which are only now emerging. Let’s take a look.
Defense: No Time for Budget Cuts
DoD is scrambling to meet the challenges presented by adversarial state and non-state actors, and in 2017 there are arguably more of both. Since shortly after Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been attempting to regain what it lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nearest first, with some success. More recently it has sensed the possible unraveling of and unrest in the European Union, and is taking advantage of the chaos in the Trump administration. But this is far from all. Although it doesn’t get much media coverage, Russia also is establishing a greater presence elsewhere, including Latin America, where it struck a deal with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, as well as in other South American countries.
China continues to build (and even create) islands in the South China Sea, some of which have long runways and multiple radars, an obvious power move, so far unchallenged but potentially disastrous. The horrors in Syria seems likely only to get worse, pitting Russia against the U.S., and for the first time the U.S. is making aggressive moves to reign in North Korea, most recently moving a carrier strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula. These threats, along with the continuing action in Afghanistan and Iraq, the spread of the so-called Islamic State into North Africa, and terrorist bombings and other massacres, are increasing.
Collectively, these present a continuous escalation of threats that require new capabilities, and many of these are directly reliant on RF and microwave technology. The need to upgrade and modernize electronic warfare systems is finally being seriously addressed, existing radar systems are being upgraded to GaN-based AESA arrays, and communication, ballistic missile defense, and other capabilities are being enhanced as well.
Regardless of how much money is immediately dedicated to these microwave-centric systems, the first step in self-awareness is realization, so it’s reasonable to believe that the RF and microwave industry will benefit in this and coming years.
The Ever-Expanding Wireless Industry
Most sectors of the wireless industry are growing and expanding faster and more broadly than in recent years. Even though the first deployments of “5G” are probably 5 years away, many of its elements are being deployed now. LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are being rolled out by some of the major carriers, and these improvements, collectively “4.5G,” will bridge the gap between what’s deployed now and 5G.
In addition, 5G may actually appear first in fixed wireless access (FWA) applications for delivery of high-speed broadband and entertainment services. Both Verizon Wireless and AT&T have publicly announced their intention to make FWA a priority, perhaps as soon as 2018 in a few areas. Frequencies within the millimeter-wave region are the most likely candidates, a sort of déjà vu for those old enough to remember Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS), which promised the same thing, but ultimately failed for both market and technological reasons.
However, technology and the entertainment and telecommunication industries are vastly different than they were in the 1990s when LMDS was conceived. Streaming services have changed the way many households get their entertainment and millimeter-wave hardware is less expensive. So, the second time may be the charm. The most compelling argument for FWA is, as always, money: Carriers that currently offer Fiber to the Home (FttH) annually lose enormous amounts of money on installation costs (i.e., truck rolls) for new installations, which FWA would mostly eliminate.
FirstNet: It’s Finally Here
It’s been a long time coming, but FirstNet has finally awarded the contract for development and deployment of the Nationwide Broadband Public Safety Network (to AT&T). This represents an opportunity for a wide swath of the RF and microwave industry, from components through antennas, that until this month didn’t exist. It’s also one that will develop rapidly, as states and territories that decide to opt out of FirstNet and create their own networks now have three months to make that decision.
If they choose to opt out they have an additional six months to design their networks or have FirstNet imposed on them. In addition, AT&T has only six months to complete its network plan, and it could begin deploying its networks as early as June. The speed at which this new market is moving and the wide range of RF and microwave hardware it requires make this a very appealing opportunity.
And Finally, There’s IoT
What was once just an acronym is now reality, and it’s a lot more than home automation. In fact, home automation is probably the smallest sector in which IoT will have an impact, as industrial applications will dwarf them in short order. So, the “billions and billions” of IoT sensors (most connected wirelessly) that the electronics industry, analysts, and the media have been promising are already being manufactured and deployed in networks throughout the world.
The question is how much of the enormous revenue that will be generated by IoT will translate into orders for the RF and microwave industry. An unfortunate but reasonable answer is probably “not much,” except for silicon vendors whose SoCs are the core element in every wireless-enabled IoT sensor. They are complete solutions and include everything required, from baseband through RF, so there’s little need for discrete components here.
Nevertheless, IoT is more than a short-range local solution, as networks of sensors must connect to the outside world, which they do using either cellular networks or Low-Power Wireless Area Network (LPWAN) being deployed by independent providers. This creates an opportunity for RF and microwave components that connect networks of sensors to the Internet via cellular or LPWANs. IoT is also an all-encompassing technology, as its benefits extend from the home to autonomous vehicles, and from towns to the largest cities, so even a small piece of this hardware should produce revenue for the industry.
Although these opportunities are the most obvious, there are many traditional applications of RF and microwave technology within industrial, broadcast, medical, weather forecasting, satellite communications, commercial aviation, and many other markets. Collectively, they represent significant revenue for the RF and microwave industry. In short, pessimists will be hard-pressed to make a compelling case that this industry will be static or in a state of decline in 2017 and in years thereafter.