5G’s balancing act in powering and greening networks
By Samuel Seck July 7, 2020
- 5G technology and networks will be a critical part of Singapore’s digital economy
- Folding GaN technologies within 5G applications will accelerate climate goals
As cellular network operators globally begin to switch on and deliver the 5G experience, the enterprise world awaits with mounting anticipation of the benefits the new mobile network technology will bring.
According to an EY study, “Maximising the 5G opportunity for Enterprise”, which surveyed more than 1,000 organisations globally on the 5G opportunity, the sectors currently leading the charge in 5G investments are energy (23%) and technology (22%), while both healthcare and financial service organisations are projected to emerge as the biggest investors within three years.
With demand most certainly evidenced through the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, 5G’s potential has been undoubtedly elevated, as both the defining technology of smart cities and enabler to inclusivity – from improving livelihoods to extending access to healthcare and digital-based economic opportunities, and everything in between. Case in point, global data demands have risen in nearly all categories (healthcare, government agencies, travel, business, education and lifestyle applications), charting a new baseline likely to be the “new normal” with current data generation and consumption becoming the new average.
Switching Power supplies (SMPS) in the 5G ecosystem (Source: Technology World)
Powering smart cities and mission-critical solutions
Today, approximately 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, with the United Nations estimating this will reach some 68% by 2050. Continued people migration from rural to urban areas (mapped against population growth) will see an increase in another 2.5 billion residents to the world’s big cities. Forming a landscape ripe for 5G implementation, this technology is inextricably linked to providing resource, operation and cost efficiencies through automation and connectedness – the basic premise of successful smart cities.
5G technology is expected to be about 100 times faster than the existing 4G networks, offering much lower latency rate (lag) when sending and receiving data in real-time. Additional capabilities in handling a much larger number of connected devices than current networks will power artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning – unleashing the potential of smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT).
In a world where autonomous vehicles communicate with traffic lights and on-the-ground sensors to clear traffic jams, 5G brings new meaning to mission-critical solutions including social services such as smart ambulances or telehealth (smart health), air and water quality monitoring and smart security.
Demystifying 5G and its place in smart cities
5Gs potential for the next decade was previewed at the 2019 IEEE GLOBECOM conference (Hawaii, USA). Here, specialists explained that given “the lifecycle of a ‘G’ is about 20 years, 5G’s impact, which is at its very early stages will, therefore, be fully realised in about 10 years.” Creating a platform that delivers scalable and reliable connectivity to the world, 5G allows for many new applications to be deployed that were not previously possible e.g IoT. This buzzword categorises smart, web-enabled devices which have more of “fixed functionality” (as opposed to multi-purposes devices like smartphones and tablets), and will become more commonplace.
For the uninitiated, 5G’s web of connectivity offers massive machine type communication (MMTC) and critical machine type communication (CMTC).
MMTC, intended for a large number of IoT devices, effectively integrates many sensors and actuators that actively send large data volumes back and forth. With applications in smart homes and buildings, logistics, supply chain, robotics, automation, fleet management, and environmental monitoring – MMTC capitalises on low latency-tolerance (small data blocks transmitted or received over low bandwidth pipes). On the other hand, CMTC is best suited for applications where data is delay-intolerant given the critical nature of its use such as in unmanned applications from autonomous vehicles, remote healthcare, electric grids and traffic safety controls – use-cases where guaranteed and accurate transmission is absolute.
The 5 best 5G use cases (Source: EDN)
Innovative partnerships, upskilling and a new way of living on the horizon
Asia-Pacific is on track to become the largest adopter of 5G by 2025, providing mobile network operators critical mass necessary for rollout and adoption with the resultant applications ecosystem providing the business case for enterprises in terms of new services and business models.
Needing specific skillset capabilities; system integrators will play an important role in bringing together end-to-end solutions, giving rise to industry partnerships across mobile network operators, third-party infrastructure providers and ecosystem partners, industries and services, governments and citizen-at-large.
Its long-term potential is not lost on Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) which announced recently that it is on track to start 5G deployment this year and in delivering standalone coverage across the country by 2025. Alongside Singapore’s Smart Nation 2020 agenda, digitalisation efforts include helping small and medium enterprises scale and access global markets without needing a physical in-market footprint, training mid-career professionals aged 40 and above for tech-related jobs, accelerating drone and autonomous vehicle trials, with the view that the “5G technology and networks will be a critical part of Singapore’s digital economy”.
Neighbouring Malaysia, in announcing its 5G spectrum bands, made it clear that 5G adoption must be inclusive, and should improve quality of life and encourage business growth and innovation, especially among smaller firms and in the public sector.
In launching a test standalone 5G network in Jan, Malaysia aims to transform its famed Langkawi island into a showcase of how 5G can unlock value from digital technologies and big data, through its command centre with APIs built and developed on an open, sharing model in over 11 use cases including smart city, smart tourism and smart agriculture.
Key requirements of 5G (Source: Thales Group)
“GaN-do Singapore” and niche 5G semiconductor tech for green networks
Today's telecommunications infrastructure design requires technologies that best match several criteria for the application, including heat, speed, power, efficiency, size and cost. These considerations, to be tackled alongside goals for a more “green” communications network means technologists and tower operators must deal with a likely 70% increase in power requirements compared to 4G.
In comes, Gallium Nitride (GaN), used since the 1990s in space applications, communications systems, and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
Operating reliably at higher temperatures and over longer lifetimes, its renowned suitability in aerospace and defence applications, will see GaN, a wide-bandgap semiconductor material known for its high levels of thermal conductivity, heat capacity and hardness, overtake traditional semiconductor materials for 5G network applications requiring higher frequencies, tight integration, and minimal implementation cost.
Additionally, power efficiencies offered through its low-voltage capabilities is inevitably making its way into the mobile handset, automotive, renewable energy and in various user applications benefitting from miniaturisation and wireless uses, particularly in healthcare.
GaN fulfils two key criteria: improving the output power while keeping costs and energy consumption low simultaneously – creating a “green network” effect that extends to high-growth use-case areas and sustainability demands. A key challenge to realising this, however, lies in mass commercialisation of GaN. GaN on Silicon (GaN-on-Si) and GaN on Silicon Carbide (GaN-on-SiC) epiwafers and its required fabrication technologies, used to meet the diverse set of 5G (and sustainability) requirements, means that GaN manufacturers need to offer several variations spanning a broad range of frequencies and power levels.
Singapore’s IGSS GaN Pte Ltd (IGaN), currently the only semiconductor firm in the nation with GaN commercialisation capabilities and one of the few in the world with proven GaN foundry capabilities, speaks to the opportunities for local industry players to leverage infrastructure, supply chains, and know-how to make GaN technology more affordable in a large manufacturing scale.
IGaN combines its partnerships with Singapore research institutes and universities who have spent some 10 – 15 years in this technology space with the company’s in-house development work and intellectual properties to manufacture epiwafers in various diameters (4”, 6” and 8”).
IGaN’s foundry process finds its natural place in driving product evolution, strengthening Singapore’s and Southeast Asia’s positioning as the world’s destination for high-volume competitive GaN technology.
Source: Digital Trends
GaN meets 5G to leapfrog sustainability goals
Globally, the number of 5G users is foreseen to explode from less than 200 million in 2019 to 1.02 billion in 2023 (Fortune, Feb 2020). According to a report from Ericsson (June 2019), 5G will reach 45% population coverage and 1.9 billion subscriptions by 2024, making it the fastest generation ever to be rolled out on a global scale.
So great are these changes that IHS Markit forecasts 5G to enable US$13.2 trillion (RM56.5 trillion) of global economic output in 2035, acting as a catalyst for transformative changes of work processes, establishing a new set of rules for competitive economic advantages.
Nobel laureate Hiroshi Amano believes GaN is the material to watch as devices based on it will play a big role in IoT, 5G communications and Internet of Energy (IoE), including wireless powering of devices and power conversion capabilities (for solar and wind energy, electric cars, rapid-charging requirements, etc).
It does seem that in the not so distant urbanised future, cars, devices, and production machines will join the networks. 5G’s latency, on the other hand, improves quality and reliability of video images to the point that augmented-reality and virtual-reality applications – from education to robotic surgery, remote healthcare, retail, self-sustainable elders, and immersive and cloud-based gaming, etc, will, in turn, drive innovations and upward social mobility through digital inclusion.
Folding in GaN technologies within 5G-based applications will also accelerate critical climate change goals, including Singapore's vision in achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Expedited by GaN's usefulness in clean energy and cutting energy expenses at data centers, one of the biggest big carbon emitters here, it is undeniable that the economy that becomes a global 5G front-runner for innovation in secure and resilient 5G applications – will lead the charge in reaping socioeconomic benefits. Recent headlines point to this as a hot-button issue, the world over.
On the sustainability side, a 2019 GSMA study shows increased contribution by the mobile industry against all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG’s). The association aptly points out “as rural models and affordability expand internet penetration reaches to roughly three-fourths of the world’s population, governments, industry and NGO community can work collectively to meet the UN SDGs, especially in good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality and climate action.” This is an aspiration GaN manufacturers can most certainly be a valuable part of.
Samuel Seck is the vice president of operations at IGaN. A 25-year logistics industry veteran, his breadth of experience includes managing complex global semiconductor supply chains focusing in the areas of logistics, procurement, production and resourcing optimisation. He is also the Vice President, Supply Chain for IGSS Ventures, a technology holding company with IGaN and CompoundTek Pte Ltd, as subsidiaries focused on the development and commercialisation of niche semiconductor solutions.