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Wireless Everywhere: Connecting the Chip Industry's New Golden Age

The wireless landscape is becoming far more sophisticated as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and mesh networks such as Zigbee and Thread take hold.

When Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Lucio Lanza was asked what the Next Big Thing is likely to be for the semiconductor industry, he gave exactly the right answer: "connectivity."

And with the vast majority of connections now done over wireless networks, it is wireless connectivity that is changing the information landscape. Traffic is doubling every two years, and an estimated 85% of bits are sent to the Cloud wirelessly.

Connectivity goes by other names, such as wireless mobile computing or the Internet of Everything. By whatever name, said GLOBALFOUNDRIES Internet of Things Marketing Director Nitin Kulkarni, "connectivity represents the next golden age for the semiconductor industry."

The ability to connect Internet of Things (IoT) devices will add, by Kulkarni’s estimate, $34B in semiconductor content over the next four years. When the IoT is lumped in with other connected systems, such as robotics, augmented reality, connected cars, and more, new semiconductor content worth $126B will be added in the next four years.

"Connectivity is the core driver of growth," Kulkarni said. However, "most organizations do not have the skill sets in place" to connect mobile apps and edge-node devices. "They need to move, store, and analyze data, turning it into relevant insights."

5G broadband wireless will accelerate the deluge of data sent to the Cloud. (Source: GLOBALFOUNDRIES)

Move Over, Big Three

Until now, the Wireless Big Three have been cellular, WiFi, and Bluetooth. But the wireless landscape is becoming far more sophisticated, as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and mesh networks such as Zigbee and Thread, take hold. Eventually, 5G cellular is expected to play a big role as well.

Also trending are various low-power wide area networks (LPWANs) that can be used to connect objects that need to be continuously on, but emit very small amounts of data. Able to transmit over long distances at very little energy, LPWANs are being used for electricity meters, smartwatches, and appliances that might send just a few dozen bytes several times a day. The technology uses the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio band to transmit a wide-reaching signal that passes freely through solid objects.

Lee Ratliff , a senior analyst specializing in low-power wireless semiconductors at market research firm IHS, said LPWAN cellular networks are now up and running, with companies large and small pioneering a variety of approaches, including LoRa, Sigfox, RPMA, LTE Cat-M1, and LTE CatNB1.

"These are long-range, low-power solutions that are looking very promising, and it could be that a large swathe of the industrial IoT will be using LPWAN. But it is relatively new, and has never been done in a widespread way before," Ratliff said.

Tracking Every Dolly

Somewhat behind the scenes is the rise of proprietary wireless protocols in factories, including semiconductor fabs, said Tom Pannell, Jr., director of IoT marketing at Silicon Laboratories (Austin, Texas). "In factories we see more proprietary networks. A lot of factory automation is already wireless, but because the protocols—the standards-based products—were not there, many vendors developed propriety interfaces."

loT Marketing Manager Tom Pannell, Jr., in the engineering lab at Silicon Labs, Austin, Texas.

At a recent technology event hosted by Bosch in Germany, much of the discussion centered on security. "Now that connectivity is a given, the issue is how do you make all these wireless devices secure?" Pannell said.

Safety, somewhat surprisingly, is another hot-button issue driving mesh networks, in which hundreds of items can be connected to a wireless mesh topology. "Safety demands that factory managers be able to detect something that is moving. So they want a wireless interface on everything. They can’t use GPS to know precisely where a hammer is, or how a lift truck or dolly is moving. Asset tracking is a good use case where wireless mesh starts to take off ," he said.

Security and safety aside, the biggest driver, according to Pannell, is data analysis, "using wireless networking to collect data and provide data analytics that can solve specific problems."

Volume shipments have been building for low-power wireless approaches, including BLE, Zigbee, ZWave, and Thread. Ratliff said nearly all "traditional" Bluetooth devices are used in just three platforms: smartphones, tablets, and laptops. BLE, by contrast, has a "long tail" with thousands of applications, led by fitness trackers.

And the volumes are accelerating: BLE unit chip shipments in 2011 were in the hundreds-of-thousands range; now, they are in "multiple hundreds of millions a year, and growing at an astounding rate. When I look at our forecast, we see BLE units crossing a billion units a year, probably four years out," he said.

10% Off, Anyone?

Retail stores, for example, are using BLE in beacons, small devices that sell for $5 to $10 in volumes. Retailers place them throughout a store in order to notify shoppers (those carrying smartphones with the store’s app active) of items that are on sale, new recipe suggestions, and other helpful hints. A proximity-sensing beacon might suggest a new flavor of ice cream when the shopper walks by the ice cream freezer, and then switch to a coffee brand on sale when the shopper comes in proximity to the coffee section.

"Now, brick-and-mortar stores can do the same thing as Amazon to track their shoppers’ behaviors and suggest items to buy. And it is very inexpensive in a large store," Ratliff said.

For any battery-powered wireless device, power consumption is critical. BLE chips have improved, drawing 25–30 milliAmps (mA) a few years ago but only about 5 mA today. Most of that 5X improvement is due to more advanced process nodes—from design rules in the 180nm range several years ago to 40–55nm now, with sharply lower operating voltages or Vdd.

Mesh with IP

Mesh is a technology that can be applied to any wireless technology, but Zigbee is the best-established thus far. Unlike a star topology where end nodes are connected point-to-point, mesh networks transfer packets throughout the mesh, without a "master" that can bring down the entire network. Commercial lighting is an ideal application. For example, if a Walmart manager wants to dim some of the store’s lights that are connected on a Zigbee or Thread mesh network, the control signal passes through every node on the mesh. The delays are too short to be noticeable as the command passes through the spider web.

Similar to Zigbee, Thread is the most recent wireless technology to emerge for IoT, providing IP-based mesh networking and advanced security. Thread supports self-healing if one node goes down, and networks up to 250 nodes. For engineers accustomed to IP addressing, Thread simplifies device commissioning and security, Pannell said.

Low-power wireless is key to connecting battery-powered "edge" devices. After being over-hyped, Ratliff said that IoT is "actually happening."

Agricultural fields under irrigation, remote oil fields being monitored, stores with hundreds of beacons, and smart lighting in an office building are wireless IoT examples that often go unnoticed. "These multiple Internet-connected devices are happening, but in many cases happening under the radar, invisible to the consumer," Ratliff said.

While the chipsets required to support cellular Long-Term Evolution (LTE) can be in the $15 range for high-end cellphones, according to a Yole Développement estimate, the BLE system-in-package solutions cost only a few dollars in volumes. "One of the pins goes out to an antenna, which can be a printed circuit board antenna. Then all you need in the package is the SoC, a handful of passive components, and a crystal," Ratliff said.

Linley Gwennap, principal analyst for Microprocessor Report, said BLE is "going to be critical for a lot of this smart home stuff that has to run on a small battery for months and years at a time."

As some home owners connect their smoke alarms, light bulbs, and home security cameras to a home network, the market will require "very low power, very cheap solutions, with some way to connect them up to the Internet. You can’t connect everything over power-hungry WiFi," Gwennap said.

While low-power wireless silicon is cheap and becoming able to support multiple protocols (BLE and Zigbee, for example), the high-end wireless solutions are about bandwidth and performance. The new WiFi standards "wring out every bit of bandwidth" to deliver hundreds of megabytes throughout a home or office, but the chipsets are complex, Ratliff said. The 4G LTE networks soon will be able to deliver up to 1-Gbps downloads to high-end smartphones.

The 5G cellular standard now being hammered out has a somewhat different set of objectives. Rather than add even more bandwidth to cellphones, the 5G standard would support vehicle-to-vehicle communications and other dense IoT networks. GLOBALFOUNDRIES, for example, is betting that 5G chipsets will take advantage of its fully depleted SOI technology, called 22 FDX, which supports high-frequency RF signals. Kulkarni said 5G networks will support "extremely high bandwidth, in the 10 Gbps range, with 1 millisecond latency, very high reliability and security."

The 5G standard creates very high bandwidth and ultra-low latencies, opening up new markets in automotive and machine-to-machine communications. (Source: IHS Markit, 2017)

Stéphane Téral

Stéphane Téral, who tracks 5G developments for IHS Markit, has been a telecommunications analyst for 28 years, but he remains cautious about how quickly 5G will come to the wider market.

The goal of 5G cellular, he said, is "massive interconnection of things to the network, to increase the density of the network, attaching as many things as we can."

While some connections may be to a conventional cellphone tower, many 5G connections will be small-diameter antennas "that could be stuck on a wall or on the ceiling." The market for 4G small-cell antennae is accelerating. IHS Markit estimates that in 2016, 1.7M units were shipped worldwide, generating revenue of $1.5B.

Already, the largest cellular carrier, AT&T, has more than 10M cars on its LTE network, largely for in-vehicle phone calls. With 5G, the goal is to have the cars themselves talk to each other to reduce accidents.

"As we reach critical mass with cars connected to the cellular network, and then connecting to each other, we need a serious network designed for that. Today, the cellular network is not designed for that," he said. However, trying to use millimeter-wave 5G signals to target a moving car is highly problematic, he said.

In one sense, the wireless carriers are seriously interested in 5G, because the market for smartphones is nearing saturation. "The question is, how do you stay in business, or grow the revenues? You need a new land of opportunity, things that people are thinking about connecting. That is why new business models are being explored," Téral said.

However, the technological hurdles are formidable. The 5G cellular standard relies on millimeter waves in the 30 GHz spectrum. "People who have been working on millimeter wave will tell you it is not easy to make it work, just because of the propagation characteristics," Téral said.

The 5G standard will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the world economy once it becomes established, beginning in 2020. (Source: IHS Markit, 2017)

"When you start playing at 30 GHz, the issues are very different, the waves are very difficult to tame. It works fine in the parking lot, but as soon as you hit a ceiling, or cloudy weather, different kinds of propagation characteristics occur. This is where the heavy lifting is happening."

But with enough engineering resources, and enough investments, some form of 5G will come to the market, starting with urban areas where bandwidth is at a premium.

Microprocessor Report’s Gwennap said he believes 5G will adopt some of the 4G LTE technologies in the initial phase, while engineers work on the millimeter-wave challenges.

"5G is going to happen, and it may happen quickly if the carriers take the LTE standard and rename it as 5G. There is a lot of skepticism around 5G now; it is a complicated standard, and the companies behind it are trying to do so many things," Gwennap said.

For one thing, millimeter waves don’t go very far. While carriers can put an LTE cell tower to service a square mile in a town or city, the millimeter-wave-based 5G will require multiple 5G towers at closer distances. "The carriers can’t afford to put them everywhere, so they will put them where there is lots of demand. In the middle of Manhattan, you will be able to get super-fast service. But if you go out into the suburbs, you are not going to see millimeter-wave," Gwennap said.

If 5G makes steady progress, it will add to the already healthy demand for silicon used in smartphones and other wireless devices. Yole estimates that front-end module components—filters, switches, power amplifiers, and other devices—will roughly double between 2016 ($10.2B) and 2022 ($22.8B).

The value of RF and front-end module components is expected to double by 2022, compared to 2016, led by filters. (Source: Yole Développement report, "RF & Front-End Module Industry")

What is impressive is the range of new wireless technologies, stretching from low-power networks enabling IoT, to very high-performance solutions in the LTE and 5G cellular arena. As data moves from wireless networks to the cloud-based data centers, it will demand faster ICs across the board.

Taken together, wireless will indeed be a core driver of growth for the worldwide semiconductor industry.

For additional information, contact nanochip_editor@ amat.com.