Memory and storage requirements will spur chip demand, but IC makers must now appeal directly to finicky smartphone users.
The accelerating pace of 5G wireless network rollouts over the past year across many regions has benefitted telecommunications equipment suppliers and makers of 5G-enabled phones. That momentum also promises to provide a profitable new market for chipmakers in the coming year.
Leading semiconductor and component suppliers in areas like memory chips and storage arrays are focusing on the opportunities presented by the 5G expansion, designing and manufacturing wireless devices capable of operating at new frequencies. New devices will also be able to process and store significantly more data than previous generations of cellular technology.
The rollout of “5G is a really big deal for us and the semiconductor industry in general,” said Raj Talluri, a chip industry veteran and general manager of Micron Technology’s Mobile Business Unit.
The challenge for Micron and other chipmakers will be finding solutions for two diverse market segments: meeting the needs of network infrastructure suppliers while developing smart devices and new applications for consumers. Those innovations are made possible by technology capable of transferring huge amounts of data at rates up to 200 times faster than previously needed.
Much of the focus so far been on the increased capabilities needed for higher-end phones. But arguably an even bigger opportunity is meeting the needs of an emerging sector made possible by 5G— the much-hyped Internet of Things and the industrial IoT. Both are spawning diverse applications such as autonomous vehicles, connected healthcare, machine-to-machine communications along with smart sensors used everywhere from on agriculture to smart city applications.
Enabling all this is the 5G NR (New Radio) standard, opening up many more spectrum bands from sub-GHz frequencies to the 28-41GHz bands. Those frequencies offer greatly increased reliability and ultra-low latency.
For instance, radio-frequency ICs capable of sending and receiving data at higher rates are generally based on III-V compound semiconductor materials such as gallium nitride and gallium arsenide produced on 150-nm wafers. The rise of 5G represents a significant opportunity for what has been up to now a sub-segment of the semiconductors industry.
Meeting demand will require another round of scaling, especially for memory devices. According to a report by consulting firm Accenture, 5G requirements will drive increases in baseline memory requirements in order to process large data volumes.
One novel chip strategy suggested in the Accenture report is adding value to 5G platforms using embedded silicon. Chipmakers could also identify system-level opportunities in which a combination of specific, differentiated silicon could capture a larger share of the 5G market.
IC manufacturers must also boost expertise and capabilities in related technologies as novel applications emerge. Sectors such as MEMS, sensors and flexible displays present both technical challenges and opportunities. Among the requirements are improved performance, greater reliability and the ability to manufacture devices in much larger volumes.
Hence, the semiconductor sector must consider evolving investment priorities such as shifting away from incremental improvements in traditional components.
Entering the 5G arena, chip companies must consider potential use cases enabled by their devices while identifying the customer base for emerging, data-driven applications. Increasingly, 5G chip innovators will not be the traditional ODM’s or OEM’s. Indeed, chipmakers may end up bypassing traditional product designers and manufacturers, instead dealing directly with consumers.
Of course, a growing and diverse customer base will have major implications for how chipmakers structure their operations, most notably when it comes to marketing and sales, but also for developing products and creating new device categories.
The good news is the semiconductor sector has succeeded before in meeting technical, innovation, marketing and manufacturing challenges, and is showing signs of evolving again.
In its December update, the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reported the number of announced 5G devices has increased 16.4 percent during the last quarter, now numbering 1,154. Of those, about 800 are commercially available. GSA reckons there are now 22 announced form factors; it has also identified 167 vendors either readying or close to unveiling new 5G-enabled devices.
The list includes: 194 fixed wireless access devices for both indoor and outdoor use, with about half already available; 160 modules; 74 industrial/enterprise routers/gateways/modems; 21 laptops; 25 tablets; 11 in-vehicle routers/modems/hotspots; eight USB terminals/dongles/modems; and 36 “other” devices ranging from drones and head-mounted displays to robots, cameras, femtocell/small cells, repeaters and even a 5G-enable vending machine.
GSA posits there are now 645 devices with declared support for standalone 5G operating in sub-6GHz bands, 381 of which are commercially available.
Separately, Gartner predicted that chip volumes and RF front-end modules for 5G could double by 2024. That implies a huge boost in semiconductor revenues from almost zero in 2018 to an estimated $31.5 billion by the end of 2023.
Micron is among the leaders in memory and storage devices. “The opportunities in mobile connectivity sector, and specifically 5G, are driving innovation as never before, and into application areas that are really promising,” Micron’s Raj Talluri told EE Times.
Talluri projects the amount of data capacity shipped will increase three-fold for flash memories, and double for the established DRAM business by 2025. “When it comes to mobile handsets, we saw the average memory requirements were between three and four gigabytes. Our projection is that this will likely double to six to eight gigabytes, a huge opportunity for the sector.”
For memory, existing and future 5G needs are likely to be met by DRAMs optimized for specific applications. These include DDR versions for traditional computing needs, low-power DDR’s for mobile devices and graphics DDR for ultra-bandwidth versions used for high-performance applications such as AI and gaming.
An emerging industry standard interconnect, Computer Express Link, combined with storage using embedded Multi-Media Card and Universal Flash Storage interfaces will also support those applications.
Talluri also predicted increasing demand for high-bandwidth, low-power memories such as LPDDR5 to meet demands of data-heavy mobile devices.
“We are already working on the next necessary upgrade, LPDDR6, which should be higher speed and more bandwidth-capable,” he added.
In November, Micron announced that MediaTek is the first to smartphone chipmaker to validate its LPDDR5X DRAM, using it in its latest Dimensity 9000 5G chipset. “Others will follow,” Talluri said. “We are working with all the major players here, such as Qualcomm and Samsung.”
On the storage side, Micron is continuing to expand devices based on what Talluri describes as its “breakthrough 176-layer NAND technology” that started shipping last November.
The new memory stacks cells vertically in multiple layers to store more data in less space. The device also serves as a building block for edge and cloud deployments, targeting data center, automotive and mobile applications.
Other memory makers are also developing as 3D NAND technologies that will require custom manufacturing lines.
Despite semiconductor advances in support of 5G wireless technology, Talluri and others cautioned that it will take time for emerging use cases to take off.
Novel, holistic approaches are required to support new applications that provide the compelling, real-life experiences to which smartphone users have become accustomed. To reach consumers, chipmakers must fashion hardware such as processing, storage, memory and displays in new ways. At the same time, closer collaboration with sensor developers and others will be needed to develop a 5G ecosystem that also satisfies network operators, cloud service providers, OEMs and applications developers.
If successful, 5G promises to be a huge new revenue stream for the semiconductor industry.
This article was originally published on EE Times.
John Walko is a technology writer and editor who has been covering the electronics industry since the early 1980s. He started tracking the sector while working on one of the UK’s oldest weekly technology titles, The Engineer, then moved to CMP’s flagship UK weekly, Electronics Times, in a variety of roles including news deputy and finally editor in chief. He then joined the online world when CMP started the EDTN Network, where he edited the daily electronics feed and was founding editor of commsdesign.com (which, over the years, has become the Wireless and Networking Designline). He was editor of EE Times Europe at its launch and subsequently held various positions on EE Times, in the latter years, covering the growing wireless and mobile sectors.