by Joel Levine, President, RFMW
MPD: Please describe what you consider to be your company’s most significant technological achievements in 2023.
As a distributor of products from more than 60 manufacturers, this year adding TTM, Guerrilla RF, and Narda-Miteq to our portfolio, we see technical advances from a wide angle. This year, for example, Ampleon added a thermal sensor on the die of their 2-kW rugged LDMOS transistor, the ART2K0TFES, that allows designers to measure die temperature in real-time, which was impossible before. In addition, NXP’s latest 5G RF power modules use top-side cooling technology that makes the heatsink part of the amplifier’s shield. This translates into a thinner and lighter remote radio head.
NuVotronics’ PolyStrata technology allows the fabrication of very precise and high-performance RF components by creating complex 3D microstructures in a pure copper substrate with an accuracy greater than 2 µm. This allows high-performance passive devices to be fabricated with tiny footprints, improving performance between 10 and 100 times in size, weight, and power consumption.
MPD: Have millimeter-wave devices advanced to the point where they can affordably be deployed for 5G?
Millimeter-wave GaN and GaAs devices are advancing rapidly and are driving the current surge in fixed wireless access deployments for delivering residential broadband and, to a lesser extent, for traditional “cellular” applications. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are deploying it at 24, 28, and 39 GHz, depending on the carrier, to compete with fiber to the home. 5G FWA is currently the fastest-growing type of residential broadband service with an annual growth rate of 74% and a global base of 58 million subscribers projected by 2026.
However, cellular penetration at even higher frequencies, such as 77 GHz, is moving slower because it requires enormous numbers of small cells to cover a given geographical area, making deployment extremely expensive. It also relies extensively on beamforming and other techniques that dynamically steer the signals emitted from many antenna elements to direct them to their intended recipients.
To make this practical for cellular applications, including very small cells and smartphones, active antennas must be combined with the RF front end and baseband functions in an extremely small footprint. Fortunately, an enormous amount of R&D is being conducted to allow all these functions to be combined in one or two SoCs. Several companies, such as Qualcomm, have demonstrated such devices, and more are coming. In addition, Renesas and several other manufacturers have developed beamforming ICs, frontends, and other components for these frequencies.
MPD: How is your company preparing for 5G Advanced with 3GPP Release 18?
Yes, as the hype suggests, IoT will be responsible for transforming many industries and businesses. The ability to monitor and control billions of devices will have a huge impact on transportation, city and building management, health, and energy. In Release 13, the 3GPP specified a new radio air interface for Massive IoT applications that focuses specifically on indoor coverage, low-cost devices (less than $5 per module), long battery lifetime (more than 10 years), massive connectivity (supporting many connected devices — around 50,000 per cell), and low latency (less than 10 ms).
MPD: What does the Department of Defense need most from the microwave industry right now?
From COTS to hi-rel components, what DoD needs right now is more of everything, from passive components to the most formidable RF power amplifiers, essentially every type of product the industry manufactures. And it needs them to be delivered in the shortest possible time with high reliability. In addition, the rapidly increasing use of drones of various capabilities in warfare means that higher levels of functional integration will be essential, including direct RF sampling receivers and software-defined radios.
Conversely, DoD also requires the means to jam, disable, or destroy drones using high-power lasers and high-power microwave directed energy weapons. Although directed-energy microwave systems have traditionally used traveling wave tubes to generate power, at least one company has already developed a directed-energy platform using GaN devices.
The Ukraine war has demonstrated the necessity of using satellites for communications, imagery, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Without these assets, warfighters would be essentially blind when conducting the type of warfare being conducted there. As every satellite relies extensively on RF and microwave components, DoD and commercial satellite companies will need large numbers of them going forward.
MPD: An increasing number of applications rely on RF and microwave technology. What application stands out as the most likely to significantly contribute to the industry by the end of the decade?
Although dozens of applications will drive the revenues of the RF and microwave industry in the coming years, one of the most interesting from my perspective is quantum computing, primarily for superconducting qubit-based quantum computers and communications.
For example, superconducting qubits are often controlled and read using microwave pulses that manipulate the quantum states of the qubits. Microwave technology also provides high-precision timing and signal generation that is essential for maintaining coherence in quantum states, which is vital for the accurate operation of a quantum computer.
In quantum computing, operations (or gates) are applied to qubits to process information, and in systems like superconducting qubits, microwave pulses are used to implement these gates. Beyond computing, microwave technology also plays a role in quantum communication, which involves transmitting quantum information over long distances. So, while quantum technology may seem foreign to engineers in our industry, it has the potential to become a significant new market for microwave components and timing devices such as those made by SiTime by the end of the decade.