5G – What is Needed to Break the Hype Cycle?

The notion of the “hype cycle” has haunted countless technologies in the past. First, new technologies and their infant products and solutions are lauded to the skies. Then, disillusionment sets in when delivery is delayed. And finally, cool appraisal wins the day. Perhaps no other technology has been so bound to the notion of a hype cycle than 5G. Sometimes, though, when people see the true potential of a new technology, excitement sets in that bit more readily, that bit more quickly, and it’s understandable that some impatience may creep in. And it’s no wonder. As 5G rides out an interim period where ongoing support for 3G/4G/LTE is still required and COVID stands as a significant delay tactic, the market is inevitably keen for 5G to be fully implemented, and now. The market needs it, it seems.   

5G’s “killer app” driver

According to the recently released “The State of 5G” survey from Molex and third-party research firm, Dimensional Research, 61% believe 5G is likely to need a “killer app”, like video was to 4G. The average consumer ‘on the street’ can perhaps be forgiven for only seeing how apps on their smartphones can benefit from 5G’s potential. Beyond that though, 5G is not just about mobile wireless and what it can do. In practice, “fixed wireless” can also take advantage of 5G’s promised increases in feeds and speeds, and this opens a whole world of new benefits to consumers and industry alike.

Consider the problems of urban densification. Today, we already face some of these pressures. Sports stadiums, for example, face huge challenges when 80,000 fans all take a photo and try to upload it almost simultaneously; let’s say each photo upload requires 2-3Mbs of bandwidth With 80K fans, an LTE network crash is inevitable.

Enter 5G, to the rescue!

It’s clear that 5G promises major advances for the automotive and other industrial manufacturing sectors, including healthcare, where advances in medical technology are moving forward at a fast pace. Once technologically aligned, a scenario where 5G and its enabled applications across numerous and widespread sectors work together seamlessly for the betterment of all will become a mainstream reality that we all take for granted, and we will soon wonder how we ever managed without the speeds and throughput that 5G brings.

The financial barriers

The financial obstacles for carriers include infrastructure costs and initial outlay cost. Despite the fact that 5G technology can result in much higher performance at lower cost than was previously possible with technologies deployed for 4G services, the reality is that it is also coming in the context of a flatter economy, with consumers currently more reluctant to adopt and upgrade equipment. In the meantime, the pandemic and related work from home (WFH) trend have impacted potential roll-out schedules. As the pandemic eases, however, pent-up demand and optimism could well accelerate uptake of new technology and equipment for many.

“The State of 5G” survey reveals that 99% of carriers agree that 5G will be delivering substantial benefits to the end-user within 2-5 years, with users appreciating the value of 5G across all geographies. Of course, there is a major investment consideration for carriers in this equation; frequency spectra cost the carriers vast sums of money, and physical infrastructure needs to be factored in. Further, when every new base-station requires a “truck roll”, the expenses add up. The economic hurdle is particularly acute in rural areas, where there are few residents to drive ROI, and this requires astute economic forecasting by the carriers many years into the future.

Technical fine-tuning

5G deployments do involve some technical trade-offs, but that’s no real surprise. The good news is that there are many companies and individuals who have been working hard for many years now towards a harmonious 5G end-goal. Knowledge is widespread, and cooperation between companies close.

The proposed use of higher millimeter-wave (mmWave) frequency bands above 6GHz for example may result in increased data throughput and speed, but signal propagation becomes vulnerable to multipath signal break-up, path loss and packet loss. Thus, there is an urgent need for a proliferating a variety of new base stations and small cells – whether femto, macro, nano, or pico.

The higher mmWave frequencies introduce directionality to RF propagation. Beam forming and beam steering are then required. Antenna design becomes all-important to support and benefit from “line-of-sight” propagation whenever possible, and also to mitigate multipath with MIMO, “massive MIMO” techniques and beam steering.

In practice, in the current transitional phase, support for 3G and 4G are retained. The 5G air interface, the “new radio” (NR), coexists in devices with 3G and 4G. Throw in a few more radios – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS-type navigation – and slim smartphones suddenly threaten to become fat smartphones, relatively speaking.

So, by industry consensus, the 5G radio is currently designed for transitional sub-6GHz frequencies, and it must live with 3G and 4G – it is “non-standalone”. For now, this falls short of the 5G revolution, where multi-gigabyte video downloads are purportedly done in a few seconds, but engineers will be continuing to aim for that revolution, as the rewards will be plentiful.

Compromise and cooperation

The next major iteration of the 5G spec is expected from the 3GPP no earlier than sometime in 2022. This is 5G evolution in action.

5G progress is more pragmatic with carriers needing to align with manufacturing and technology providers who understand and anticipate the deep technology requirements of 5G. It takes companies like Molex with a vast solutions portfolio matched by decades of acquired expertise to support the complex design and manufacturing requirements of this new technology wave.

The handset manufacturers, carriers and R&D labs also need to cooperate on aggressive innovative techniques for miniaturization, such as Molex’s MID/LDS technology. New higher-power components, such as GaN and other wide-bandgap transistors, may be needed. Further, new fiber-optic cabling will need to be laid for base-station backhaul and large amounts of fiber-optic cabling will be needed within the base-stations and cells themselves.

This will all take time and major investment, and, paradoxically, it may be the cable and connector makers who become the heroes in the end, rather than the carriers. Laying new fiber-optic cable is, after all, expensive and takes decades of acquired expertise.

5G, worth the wait

5G delivery will take cool heads and a massive level of both product and RF system manufacturing expertise and proficiency to properly incorporate sensitive RF antennas and connectors into complex devices. Molex’s deep involvement in 5G R&D includes new designs, utilizing state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and techniques, and the use of new higher frequency RF test chambers for advancing manufacturing.

Molex will produce high-yield, cost-effective products in form factors useful to the communications, IoT and automotive markets. Multiple international Molex RF teams continue to advance 5G component design and manufacturing processes to expand their expertise in 5G innovation, giving OEMs a leg-up in the race to market.

5G tech advancement will be incremental, exploratory, innovation-driven and highly customized to the needs of customers.  We believe in the tremendous benefits of 5G: enabling ML/AI at speeds close to real time, and key enabling technology for the realization of Industry 4.0 and autonomous vehicles. We also believe it may stimulate a new generation of high-tech gaming, and AR/VR technology that could impact the medical sector once standards are agreed and implemented.

Despite its well documented challenges, mmWave technology is the future. According to the “The State of 5G”  Molex survey, the technology will gain industry acceptance within two to three years, when capex and opex achieve a favorable cost ratio for the carriers. Bearing in mind that mmWave propagation requires much tighter tolerances, and is therefore more costly compared to sub-6GHz frequencies, 5G has not yet met the expectations of its hype cycle. But it will!

Vice President RF and Printed Circuit Business Unit