How to Design for 5G
Michael Alba posted on September 09, 2020 |
Industry veteran Fram Akiki explains the benefits and design challenges of 5G.
Siemens Digital Industries Software has sponsored this post.
(Image courtesy of Siemens.)
(Image courtesy of Siemens.)

5G, the fifth-generation cellular network, is full of promise. It will be a key enabler of many emerging technologies, according to Fram Akiki, a 35-year veteran of the electronics and semiconductor industry. Smart cities, smart factories, autonomous vehicles and many other tech targets will all depend on 5G.

But as wonderful as it will be, 5G comes with a whole slew of design challenges. “5G is a complex protocol,” Akiki asserts. spoke with Akiki to learn more about 5G, its benefits and the design challenges it poses. Here’s what he had to say. What’s so great about 5G?

Fram Akiki, President of Joun Technologies and Siemens consultant. (Image courtesy of Fram Akiki.)

Fram Akiki, President of Joun Technologies and Siemens consultant. (Image courtesy of Fram Akiki.)

Fram Akiki: When you think in the context of digital transformation, 5G is one of the technologies that I see as being a big enabler. Today’s businesses are faced with an explosion of complexity. Advancements in compute, visual and connectivity technologies provide an opportunity for organizations to harness this complexity for a competitive advantage.  And certainly, 5G is front and center around connectivity.

Why is 5G is so important to the connectivity message?  I like to focus on 3 key areas.

One is throughput. Throughput improvement is what we have been accustomed to with cellular going from 2G to 3G, and 3G to 4G. But now with 5G, we are getting into gigabit speeds. 5G starts where 4G left off, which is around one gigabit per second. And 5G's specs will take you all the way up to 10 gigabits per second. The significance of that throughput is all of a sudden, applications that were primarily wired in nature can now go to wireless.

The second key area is latency. Latency is the response time of the network. The latency spec for 5G goes down to one millisecond, which is an order of magnitude improvement over 4G. Low latency combined with the reliability of cellular networks now allows for more real-time control.

Akiki referenced this video from Ericsson and Paris Saint-Germain to illustrate the impact of 5G’s lower latency:

The third key is connection density. Again, we see an order of magnitude increase. The spec for 5G calls for an ability to support up to one million users per square kilometer. You are going to have not only a lot of devices that can get connected, but you are also going to see a lot of different types of devices getting connected, beyond just smartphones.

I look at throughput as an evolutionary kind of improvement, but the latency and connection density are clearly new items that 5G brings to the table.

What industries will benefit from 5G?

We talked about being able to go from wired to wireless, and there are two big applications I see where this conversion comes into play.

The first is on the factory floor, the industrial setting. Now you can use 5G to help enable this whole concept of Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution. In the past, for example, a lot of the equipment that was on the factory floor would have to be wired in via ethernet cables. Now, factories have much better flexibility by using 5G and even a 5G private network to connect and operate on the factory floor.

Another big opportunity area in the shift from wired to wireless is access to the home—sometimes referred to as the last mile. Despite all the improvements that have been made over the years with technologies such as fiber optics, access to the home is still primarily a copper wire cable or even a twisted pair of wires. 5G is going to revolutionize that, because now you can get very high-speed access into homes without cables or wires.

(Image courtesy of Siemens.)
(Image courtesy of Siemens.)

On the latency side, we have the whole area of smart cities and the ability to do real-time control and monitoring. One big application is around autonomous driving. Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) communication is key to how an autonomous car communicates to other cars, to stop lights, and to sensors that might be detecting road conditions. A lot of the time, that communication does not have high throughput needs. There might not be a lot of data, but whatever data is there needs to be communicated very quickly—such as with accident avoidance.

The connection density support of 5G is going to allow everything, from smartphones, tablets, watches and medical devices—even your shoes—to connect to the internet. There are some protocol changes in 5G that allow you to be able to have a smaller battery in the connected device, and of course a smaller battery allows for smaller devices as well as for those devices to last longer. Your ability to apply cellular connections to more and more devices is going to expand greatly in 5G.

What’s the timeline of 5G?

If you look at the evolution of cellular standards all the way back to 1G in 1979, you see a few trends. First, a new standard tends to get introduced every 7-10 years. The second trend is that it generally takes about two to three years to get widespread deployment. Finally, once a standard is introduced, it usually stays in widespread deployment for about 20 years. As a result, at any given moment in time you tend to see a lot of overlap in deployments, and you see that today with 2G, 3G and 4G.

I think wide-spread deployment is probably two to three years away, and a lot of it is going to be dependent on the applications. 5G is being rolled out globally and is already deployed in major metropolitan areas of the U.S., Europe and Asia. Remember, with 5G we have a lot of new opportunity areas opening. Do not think of 5G simply as a smartphone consumer technology—if you are, you're not thinking about this in the correct sense. The factory floor, for example, is going to look very different than a consumer deployment. It is hard to quantify widespread industrial deployment, but industrial discussions are happening today.

What are the technical challenges of 5G?

First, to roll out 5G, it takes a whole ecosystem. I like to think of the ecosystem as four major players. You have infrastructure, chipset, device OEMs and operators. By the way, I think you will see a lot more device OEMs in the future as more and more different types of devices get connected via cellular.

If you look at infrastructure, one of the big technical challenges is around use cases for 5G. When you design infrastructure, you need to have a model developed for network traffic. There have been some well-defined models that have been developed over the years which are primarily based on smartphone traffic over cellular networks.

However, as we move forward and we start to think about these other applications—autonomous vehicles, IoT—the use cases are driving the need for new models. These new models now must deal with a lot more variability based on whether a base station is being used in a cellular tower or on a factory floor. This has an impact on infrastructure system architecture and design.

As a result, infrastructure vendors are looking into something called MBSE (Model Based System Engineering). The concepts around MBSE have been used for years in the areas of aeronautics, airplane design and automobiles. Now those concepts are moving in to the design of 5G infrastructure because you need to have the same ability to model the system, not only from its highest levels, but all the way down into how you architect the SoC (system-on-chip). This modeling is not just for hardware, but different software architectures as well.

(Image courtesy of Siemens.)
(Image courtesy of Siemens.)

With chipsets, some of the big challenges in 5G include system integration and protocol compliance. We are approaching the point where semiconductor technology scaling does not get you all of the system integration capabilities that are needed.  That is why you see the discussions mentioning not only SoC (system-on-chip), but something called system-in-package, SiP. This puts multiple chips into a single semiconductor package, which makes these packages much more complex—so complex that designers are using chip-level EDA software tools at the semiconductor package level.

The 5G protocol, combined with the various use cases we discussed, makes the job of defining chip requirements and ensuring their verification and validation much more complicated. This is not only up front, but also later in the life cycle of the chip when new use cases get imagined and designers need a trusted way of knowing whether their chip will work in these new use cases.

Device OEMs have increasingly been dealing with complex electronics in a challenging mechanical environment. Smartphones are a great example. Leading smartphones want to be seven millimeters thick or less while also packing in more and more capabilities. It is not just 5G—our smartphones continue to have better cameras and improved battery life, just to name a few. One big challenge, whenever you pack more and higher performance function in a smaller area, is thermal dissipation.

Another big challenge is what I call “opportunity for error.” Historically, you have two different design groups that have worked somewhat independently: the electronics teams and the mechanical teams. Now these two groups must work more closely together, and if you do not have the right systems and tools to collaborate, the opportunity for error becomes much greater.

Screenshot of Mentor Xpedition ECAD software. (Image courtesy of Siemens.)
Screenshot of Mentor Xpedition ECAD software. (Image courtesy of Siemens.)

With operators, deployment of 5G is not going to be a simple lift-and-replace of base stations. For example, the deployment of small cells for millimeter wave is going to be a bit more of a challenge. A lot more thought must go into how these small cells should be placed for optimizing coverage and minimizing interference from structures and buildings.

In closing, the electronics and semiconductor industry has a long history of overcoming technical challenges to unleash incredible innovation and opportunities. There have always been winners and losers. In this era of digital transformation, the losers are going to be gone fast.    

The Siemens Xcelerator platform, bolstered by the acquisition of Mentor and subsequent acquisitions like Sarakol, Solido and UltraSOC, is uniquely positioned to address these 5G design challenges comprehensively from the network and top-level system all the way down to the lowest of the chip, according to Akiki.

To learn more about the Xcelerator portfolio and 5G solutions, visit Siemens Digital Industries Software.

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