Oh-Oh! 5G Phones Will Lag 5G Networks

One of the direct benefits of deploying 5G is supposed to be 5G networks' ability to easily handle that traffic with throughputs of 5 Gbits/s or better. That won't be the case for some time after 5G networks have been deployed, however.

Brian Santo, Senior editor, Test & Measurement / Components, Light Reading

August 18, 2016

4 Min Read
Oh-Oh! 5G Phones Will Lag 5G Networks

Can't wait to walk around streaming blazing-fast video over the air on your new 5G smartphone? Well, don't hold your breath. Intel expects the phones will arrive after the anticipated launch of the next-generation mobile networks in 2020.

More and more people are streaming an astounding amount of video on their phones, already increasing stress on existing 4G LTE networks. One of the direct benefits of deploying 5G is supposed to be 5G networks' ability to easily handle that traffic with throughputs of 5 Gbits/s or better. That won't be the case for some time after 5G networks have been deployed, however, because 5G smartphones won't be immediately available.

Kenneth Stewart, an Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) fellow and the chief wireless technologist in the company's Platform Engineering Group, said that semiconductor manufacturing technology will not be up to producing a smartphone processor that can fulfill the requirements of a 5G phone for another few process generations.

Consequently, 5G technology will be found first in larger devices gateways, laptops and then transition into "fully optimized smartphones," he said. Stewart made his remarks in a session at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF).

The device physics are such that there's a relationship between energy efficiency and throughput. With battery technology unlikely to improve much, and in order to get smartphones that can support 5 Gbits/s, smartphone processors are going to require a 10x improvement in energy efficiency.

Increased energy efficiency is a by-product of shrinking the size of the features on a chip. Today, the world's most accomplished semiconductor manufacturers are moving from the 14 nm node to the 10 nm node. The next node on the roadmap is at 7 nm. The pace of advancing from one node to the next is about two years.

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However, you can only get about a 2x improvement in energy efficiency per node, Stewart explained. So as a practical matter, if you want a 10x improvement, semiconductor manufacturers are going to need at least 4 nodes to get there.

While a 10x improvement in energy efficiency will get semiconductor manufacturers to a 5G processor that can support 5 Gbits/s, they will still be able to produce 5G chips sooner. Stewart expects the industry will be able to produce ICs that perform at roughly 3 Gbit/s at the 7nm node.

The silicon for 5G is going to be even more complex, he noted. 3G and 4G aren't going away soon. The combination of 3G, 4G and 5G -- which itself is likely to be a combination of different radio technologies for different geographical markets and different applications -- will require sophisticated on-board interference suppression, relying on techniques now used largely only in military communications systems.

Stewart showed a mock-up of what a 5G phone processor might look like, but gave no indication that Intel intends to design its own. As a foundry service, it is almost certain to make them on behalf of other chip designers, and it is also almost certain to try to build on its recent licensing of ARM technology to manufacture 4G ARM processors for LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) . (See Intel Gives Up ARM Wrestling.)

Instead, the company has been focused on transceivers for network edge equipment. That's in keeping with the growing interest in using Intel-based white boxes to build C-RANs. (See Intel Working With NEC, AT&T on NFV.)

Stewart said to expect experimental 5G networks to be deployed in 2018, followed by commercial deployments in 2020 -- pretty much the same time line other companies have discussed. He said Intel is working with partners such as Verizon, AT&T, Nokia and Ericsson for pre-deployment experiments.

For its part, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) told Light Reading in April that it expects its first 5G device will be a "mobile hotspot" to complement the fixed wireless service it expects to introduce first. (See Verizon Hits 1-Gig+ in 5G Trials, Eyes Early Applications and Verizon Could Take Fixed 5G Nationwide.)

Samsung Corp. , meanwhile, has been the most aggressive about introducing a 5G smartphone. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung had been using a 60GHz WiFi module with its Galaxy phones to give a concept of the capabilities of 5G. The massive vendor says that a prototype chipset using Samsung's preferred 28GHz frequency for 5G is coming soon. (See Samsung Gets Ready to Shrink 5G Antennas & Chipsets.)

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Brian Santo

Senior editor, Test & Measurement / Components, Light Reading

Santo joined Light Reading on September 14, 2015, with a mission to turn the test & measurement and components sectors upside down and then see what falls out, photograph the debris and then write about it in a manner befitting his vast experience. That experience includes more than nine years at video and broadband industry publication CED, where he was editor-in-chief until May 2015. He previously worked as an analyst at SNL Kagan, as Technology Editor of Cable World and held various editorial roles at Electronic Engineering Times, IEEE Spectrum and Electronic News. Santo has also made and sold bedroom furniture, which is not directly relevant to his role at Light Reading but which has already earned him the nickname 'Cribmaster.'

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