by Terry Jarnigan, Chief Executive Officer, Infinite Electronics
MPD: Millimeter wave frequencies will be used for cellular communications for the first time in 5G. What challenges and opportunities does this present for the microwave industry?
Operating at millimeter wavelengths is always a challenge, which is why few services other than defense, vehicle radar, and satellite systems operate there. But to grow in capacity and throughput, cellular networks need the bandwidth that only the wide-open spectrum at millimeter wave frequencies provides. Fortunately, the comparatively poor propagation characteristics at very high frequencies that are typically considered a hindrance can actually benefit wireless systems by minimizing the potential for interference, allowing high traffic density over short distances.
There are also some challenges presented by millimeter wavelengths unique propagation characteristics. For example, as a line-of-sight transmission path is necessary to maintain a reliable link, mobility is difficult to accommodate. Signal loss is much higher, and it must be mitigated using complex techniques such as massive MIMO. The inherently short distances that can be covered at millimeter wave frequencies require more infrastructure, which increases cost versus operation at lower frequencies. However, private industry, academia, and government are working hard to solve these problems and remarkable progress has already been made.
MPD: What RF and microwave technologies do you feel will have the greatest impact in our industry overall between now and 2020?
In years past, the technologies driving innovation in the RF and microwave industry have been predictable, but this will be more difficult in the coming years. Tomorrow’s opportunities are more diverse, and many necessitate the use of semiconductor technologies such as RF CMOS and SiGe for operation at very high frequencies that although not new have never been fully exploited, and complex software-defined radios and wireless networks pose major challenges for which solutions are just now being developed.
In addition, 5G, IoT, and intelligent transportation systems are essentially works in progress, and are certain to require innovative solutions to problems that have never been addressed before. The same is true for defense systems such as radar and electronic warfare that will demand more from RF and microwave technologies in the future. All of this is great news for our industry, which has yet to face a challenge it could not meet, and stands to benefit from solving new ones as they appear.
MPD: After years of hype and little to show for it, IoT networks are actually being deployed in a variety of applications. Do you believe IoT is a major opportunity for the RF and microwave industry? If so, why and if not, why not?
The RF and microwave industry is already reaping benefits from this potentially enormous market, as communication is its essential ingredient and most of it will be performed wirelessly. RF and microwave technology is required at every point in an IoT network: locally at the “edge” where data is generated; using Bluetooth®, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, etc.; and over longer distances via cellular base stations and small cells or Low-Power Wireless Area Network (LPWAN) base stations.
Semiconductor vendors will benefit at the edge where billions of System on Chip (SoC) connectivity solutions in a single IC will be needed. Manufacturers of more traditional RF and microwave active and passive components, subsystems, and systems will benefit from the needs of cellular carriers and LPWAN providers that operate at higher power levels and that must span greater distances. And although often not considered an IoT application, fully autonomous vehicles and the infrastructure they connect to will require microwave and millimeter wave hardware. Collectively, IoT applications should become a significant new market for this industry.
MPD: We believe that the defense industry will retain its crucial importance to the RF and microwave industry regardless of overall DoD budget constraints. Do you agree with this statement? Either way, please explain your reasoning.
Budget constraints will not adversely affect the growth of the microwave industry because so much of what is needed can only be provided by the unique capabilities of RF and microwave technology. Radar and electronic warfare systems in particular are experiencing extraordinary advances in their capabilities, and semiconductor technologies, principally gallium nitride, are key ingredients to their success. Highly integrated microwave assemblies based on open architectures are also making it possible to meet the challenges posed by size, weight, power, and cost (SwaP C) requirements. In short, the defense industry has represented a major portion of RF and microwave industry revenues for more than 75 years and will continue to do so in the future.