5G is poised to transform industries, society and how we communicate and live in ways we’ve yet to imagine. Not simply a faster 4G LTE, 5G is one of the most transformative technologies in the history of telecommunications. 5G is 10 times faster, supports 10,000 times more network traffic and can handle 100 times more devices than 4G networks while enabling one-fiftieth the latency with zero perceived downtime.
Although 5G builds on existing 4G infrastructure, 5G networks deployed at scale will require a complete redesign of communications infrastructure. Industry experts generally agree it may take a decade to completely roll out 5G networks and to realize its full value through the Internet of Things, automated driving, telemedicine, artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality. Leading carriers have already begun delivering 5G service in major metro areas this year. The GSMA estimates that by 2025, we may see 1.8 billion 5G connections deployed worldwide.
Delivering on the full promise of 5G requires performance, bandwidth and latency beyond what’s possible with currently deployed sub-6 GHz networks. The market needs ultrafast millimeter Wave (mmWave) technology in the 24 GHz to 40 GHz range. This shift will require the widespread deployment of outdoor equipment to overcome line-of-sight, blockage and coverage challenges associated with mmWave frequencies.
Ensuring reliable, resilient 5G mmWave networks may require 100 times more equipment (base stations, small cells, relays and repeaters) deployed closer to the customer premises such as on lampposts, traffic lights, stadiums, rooftops and exterior walls. Most of this 5G equipment will operate in harsh outdoor environments and must withstand extreme temperatures, wind, vibration and shock.
The hardware and software technologies required for 5G infrastructure are well understood — optimized RF ICs, antenna arrays, amplifiers, beamforming and beam management techniques. Choosing the right timing solution is equally critical for successful 5G applications.
Timing devices are the heartbeat of all electronic systems, including communications infrastructure, industrial equipment, automotive systems and countless consumer electronics products. Think of a timing chip as the metronome used by a piano player, providing the artist with a precise, steady beat for a sharper, clearer musical performance. Despite the prevalence of timing technology throughout our lives, relatively few people — except for system engineers and architects — are aware of the crucial role clocks and oscillators have played in communications revolutions over the past several decades. As we enter the 5G era, timing technology is more critical than ever.
Most electronic systems today rely on quartz-based timing devices, functionally similar to the quartz crystals quietly resonating inside our analog wristwatches. Quartz is a 70-year-old timing technology, and quartz resonators and oscillators have served us well over the decades and across multiple industries and applications.
However, there’s a quiet revolution underway in the timing industry. New generations of timing devices based on tiny, ingenious microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS) resonators have been replacing quartz in applications that require the highest reliability and resilience to environmental stressors. MEMS technology, combined with analog circuits, provides a complete timing solution that is much smaller and lower power than equivalent quartz-based devices, as well as much more resistant to harsh environmental conditions.
Introduced for commercial use nearly 15 years ago, MEMS timing devices have been perfected over multiple generations and have steadily displaced quartz-based counterparts in many demanding communications and networking applications, including 4G LTE and 5G wireless infrastructure. MEMS-based resonators, oscillators and complete “clock-system-on-a-chip” devices deliver orders of magnitude higher performance, reliability and resilience than quartz solutions. For these reasons, MEMS is an ideal precision timing technology for 5G macro- and small-cell base stations deployed outdoors, helping equipment makers and mobile carriers deliver on the promise of 5G.
While the benefits of MEMS timing for 5G are extremely clear, as discussed above, it does mean that hardware OEMs will need to approach timing solutions differently. In past deployments such as 4G, timing challenges were not as stringent. At that time, OEMs could take a multisource strategy toward procuring timing components, as they were not critical to the system. In 5G, timing becomes critical, similar to processors and RF filters, where only one device may meet the system requirements.
To deliver on the vision of 5G, OEMs will need to commit to single-source timing components such as MEMS timing and overcome their supply concerns by extending their current supply-chain solutions from processors into timing. Examples of this include adequate inventory in the channel, long-term forecasts and relying on a MEMS timing provider that has a multisourced supply chain.
The success of 5G will depend in part on customer satisfaction, not only in terms of unrivaled wireless performance but also rock-solid reliability. With 5G, there is simply no option for dropped calls or network outages caused by extreme temperatures, excessive vibration or sudden shocks. Whether it’s for a self-driving car or remote surgery, operators and users alike must rely on 5G as a failsafe technology. 5G equipment makers have already begun using MEMS-based timing technology in network infrastructure. In fact, more than 10 different 5G applications now use MEMS timing devices.
It’s about time: The 5G revolution is well underway, and the latest advances in MEMS timing technology can help fuel the coming wireless network innovation and transformation.