By Ed Biller
HONOLULU — As the saying goes, if you’re the smartest person in a room, you’re in the wrong room.
When show hours ended each day during the 2017 International Microwave Symposium (IMS), some attendees headed to Oahu’s beaches, while others went out to dinner with their families, who had tagged along to enjoy the island. Many hearty souls, though, sought a tougher room, taking advantage of opportunities to talk shop with some of the finest minds in the RF/microwave community by attending the IMS2017 Plenary Session on June 4, and the 5G Executive Forum, held June 5.
Both of these events — the Plenary Session on an annual basis — help to set the stage for our industry’s coming year, establishing R&D priorities, predicting what may be on the horizon, and/or critiquing current events and developments. Unsurprisingly, 5G took center stage at both events, as its development is essential to the advanced wireless technologies now in demand for applications in virtual reality, robotics, and electronic warfare, to name just a few.
The Plenary Session’s first speaker was Wolfgang Heinrich, president of the European Microwave Association. He drew some nervous chuckles from the packed Coral Ballroom at Hilton’s Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort when he opened his presentation by commenting on the contentious global political scene.
“But, the technical world’s agendas are well aligned,” continued Heinrich. “Let’s bring the communities together, and keep them together.”
Keeping with IMS2017’s “Catch The Wave” theme, Heinrich laid out the big waves our industry needs to ride: the 5G wave, the Internet of Things (IoT) wave, and the autonomous driving wave.
The Plenary Session’s keynote speakers mainly discussed the 5G wave. Dr. Henning Schulzrinne, a Levi Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University who has served in various roles with the FCC, and Dr. Wen Tong, VP of Wireless Research and CTO at Huawei Technologies, each looked at the surprises 5G might have in store for both the industry and consumers.
Schulzrinne pointed out that a 20-year span generally exists between a technology’s standardization and its obsolescence, but 5G is challenging because that rule doesn’t necessarily apply. The three previous generations of tech still will exist and be useful, complicating design.
“Just like we don’t discard human generations when a new one rolls around, previous tech generations retain their usefulness; they work and they’re cost-effective,” said Schulzrinne.
He added that new spectrum is a key differentiator for 5G, as “dollars per Gb [delivered to the end user] will matter most.”
But spectrum sharing, he said, from licensed and unlicensed spectrum to open access, will be complicated.
“Except at the highest frequencies, all new spectrum is likely to be shared,” Schulzrinne said, adding that most people who currently hold spectrum “either have lots of money, or lots of guns,” and are unlikely to give up that spectrum without a fight.
Dr. Tong discussed 5G’s role as the next “big bang” in technology. For example, he said, the 2007 introduction of the first-generation iPhone quickly led to mobile Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A decade later, we live in a culture where there’s an app for just about anything, so how will the landscape look in ten more years?
Schulzrinne also discussed this angle, pointing out that each new generation of technology has brought surprises: 2G, expected to improve voice clarity in calls, ended up enabling short message service (SMS); 3G, envisioned as support for wireless application protocol (WAP), ended up enabling mobile web access; 4G, intended to support IP Multimedia Core Network Subsystem (IMS), opened the door for apps like YouTube and WhatsApp.
So, what surprises will 5G — envisioned as a tool enabling low latency and a widespread IoT — bring?
That’s impossible to answer right now, but Tong discussed some of the more predictable effects.
5G is expected to improve networks’ area traffic capacity, energy efficiency, and connection density capabilities, he said. Furthermore, the 5G/autonomous car could contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, estimated Morgan Stanley analysts. That number grows to over $5.6 trillion annually when viewed on a global scale. These savings are derived from a number of factors, including worker productivity gains, accident prevention, and fuel savings.
The culmination of IMS2017’s 5G Summit, the 5G Executive Forum held June 6, provided more definitive information on 5G’s development in the near future. Presenters at the forum included Dr. Vida Ilderem, VP of Intel Labs and director of Wireless Communications Research for the company; Dr. Bami Bastani, Senior VP for the RF Business Unit at GLOBALFOUNDRIES; and Michael Stewart, CEO and co-founder of Escape Communications, Inc.
Ilderem immediately laid out four technologies critical to wireless moving forward: mm-Wave, massive antenna arrays, narrowband IoT, and the evolution of LTE-WiFi.
She also hinted that, “by the second half of [2017, Intel] will have a 5G modem.”
Bastani called wireless “the largest innovation engine in the world,” explaining that “different applications will drive different solutions.” Those applications, he explained, include wide-area and IoT, ultra-mobile broadband, and ultra-reliable/mission-critical applications.
For example, in wide-area and IoT applications, such as wireless virtual/augmented reality and mobile entertainment, power consumption will be a vital design factor. In mission-critical applications, such as autonomous vehicle safety systems, latency will be a key design driver.
Regardless of application, a key component to 5G will be further development of mm-Wave technologies. Ilderem said one of the industry’s biggest challenges is “to harmonize mm-Wave across the globe,” and most of the panel agreed that silicon will be the basis for hardware that enables such harmonization.
“As we’ve moved deeper and deeper into mm-Wave, silicon technologies have become more relevant,” Bastani said.
“What silicon gives you is integration,” added Ilderem.
Other topics discussed at the Forum included the “network as a service” business model and the evolution of wireless backhaul (intermediate links between the core network and smaller subnetworks on its periphery).
Forum speaker Dr. Khurram P. Sheikh, CEO of Kwikbit —a Silicon Valley startup creating what it bills as the first on-demand gigabit wireless network — stated flatly, “we need to commoditize RF.” Building on Schulzrinne’s statements about spectrum at the 5G forum, Sheikh said “you’re going to see a step-by-step process where licensed and unlicensed spectrum will be rolled together,” depending on the use cases.
Commoditization of RF would help to accelerate the development of hardware to support future wireless networks, Sheikh said.
“I have two broadband providers in my home, both of which are gigabit, but the routers they provide me don’t exceed 500 MB. That’s just the way of the world today,” he said.
Regarding wireless backhaul, Stewart said the D-band (110-170 GHz) will emerge as an option in the next “several years.” Further down the road, he said, the E-band (60-90 GHz) and the V-band (50-75 GHz) have the best economics for throughput and spectrum license.
Ultimately, it’s a lot to take in — some of the RF and microwave community’s top players give a peek behind the curtain at their own work and share their thoughts on the future. Attendees then must puzzle out, “where do I fit in?”
If they figure out the answer, then perhaps, next year, it’ll be them I’m writing about — confident in the knowledge that I’m in the correct room.