5G is transforming industries, society, and how we communicate and live. Not simply a faster 4G LTE, 5G is one of the most transformative technologies in the history of telecommunications. It is 10 times faster that 4G, supports 10,000 times more network traffic, and can handle 100 times more devices, while enabling one-fiftieth the latency with zero perceived downtime. One of most important technologies that will help deliver on the promise of 5G is microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) timing. MEMS timing provides solutions that are much smaller and lower power than equivalent quartz-based devices, and they are much more resistant to harsh environmental conditions.
What technological changes are required to fully realize 5G capabilities?
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, and we may see up to 1.8 billion 5G connections deployed worldwide by the end of 2021. One of the most important technologies enabling end-to-end 5G is MEMS timing.
What continues to drive the need to fulfill the promise of 5G?
Delivering on the full promise of 5G requires performance, bandwidth and latency beyond what’s possible with current networks. So far, we have deployed sub-6 GHz networks, and the market needs ultra-fast millimeter Wave (mmWave) technology in the 24-GHz to 40-GHz range. This shift will require widespread deployment of outdoor equipment to overcome line-of-sight, blockage, and coverage challenges associated with mmWave frequencies.
Two significant deployment requirements have emerged with 5G: network densification in which cell sites are added wherever they can be to increase the amount of available capacity and cloudification in which light and other utility poles are used to transform networks and enable 5G-powered services. Due to their exposure to shock, vibration, extreme temperatures and other harsh-environment stressors, these deployments require resilient, ruggedized timing components, and that means MEMS.
How is 5G reliability ensured?
Ensuring reliable, resilient 5G mmWave networks may require as much as 100× more equipment (base stations, small cells, relays and repeaters) deployed closer to customer premises such as on lamp posts, traffic lights, stadiums, rooftops, and exterior walls. Most of this equipment will operate in harsh outdoor environments and withstand extreme temperatures, wind, vibration, and shock.
What technologies are impacted by or involved in 5G implementations?
The hardware and software technologies impacted by or involved in 5G implementations include, but are not limited to, optimized RF ICs, antenna arrays, amplifiers, beamforming, and beam management techniques. At a recent operator defined open and intelligent radio access networks (O-RAN) conference, the need for timing synchronization for 5G was a highly discussed topic. This is because many of the fundamental techniques involved in 5G not only require synchronization, but in fact demand levels of timing alignment beyond anything previously deployed on this scale.
Why do timing devices matter so much for 5G deployments?
Timing devices are the heartbeat of all electronic systems including communications infrastructure, industrial equipment, automotive systems, and countless electronics products. Think of a timing chip as a metronome used by a piano player, providing the musician with a precise, steady beat for a sharper, clearer musical performance. Despite the prevalence of timing technology in our lives, relatively few people – except for system engineers and architects – are aware of the crucial roles 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.
What are the different timing technologies in 5G? Why silicon-based MEMS?
Most electronic systems have historically used 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 its resonators and oscillators have served us well over the decades. 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, and is much more resistant to harsh environmental conditions.
Why has MEMS emerged as the de-facto 5G timing technology?
MEMS timing devices have been perfected over multiple generations and have steadily displaced quartz-based counterparts in many demanding communications and networking applications such as 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.
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 be able to 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 will help energize the coming wireless network innovation and transformation.
About the author
Jeff Gao is director of product marketing for SiTime, a market leader in MEMS technology. Jeff is responsible for all aspects of marketing including 5G communications strategy.