Semiconductors in Wireless Communications

May 30, 2017
Category:
Industry

“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you,” are the familiar words of Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant during the world’s very first phone call on March 10, 1876. Shortly after this now famous experiment, Bell predicted that “the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid onto houses just like water and gas — and friends will converse with each other without leaving home.” Needless to say, his prediction that this type of communication would become an everyday, widely-used utility has long been surpassed.

Growth in Communications Frequency

Technology has expanded to include wireless as well as traditional wired capabilities, and today we communicate in many different ways with people all over the world. The current volume of daily wired/wireless communications is staggering. For example, in 2016 more than 100 million voice calls were made daily on the WhatsApp platform. That’s about 1,100 calls per second just for voice calls on only one of many available platforms. As of June 2014, approximately 18.7 billion short message service (SMS) texts were being sent every day around the world, not including app-to-app messaging. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reported in 2016 that Facebook and WhatsApp combined were processing 60 billion messages a day! This phenomenal growth is driving innovation in a number of areas, all requiring semiconductor technology.

Technologies Driving Connectivity

Types of wireless communication include infrared, satellite, broadcast radio, microwave, mobile communications systems, Wi-Fi, and technologies such as Bluetooth and Zigbee. In addition, radio frequency (RF) power devices are also key components in a broad range of wireless communications. Here are just a few examples:

  • Small devices that are capable of delivering several watts of RF power from a battery power source of a few volts are used in handheld applications such as cellphones.
  • High-power RF devices, which can deliver up to hundreds of watts, are used in infrastructure applications such as cellphone base stations.
  • System-on-chip (SoC) and field-programmable gate array (FPGA) devices are being used in the development of wireless communications systems such as 5G.
  • Low-energy microcontrollers (MCUs) are enabling Bluetooth capabilities.
  • Wireless sensor networks are used for applications such as environmental monitoring, structural monitoring of bridges and buildings, and asset tracking.

A Wireless World

As wireless technologies advance, they permeate many areas of our lives and continue to expand. For example, we have come to expect instant access to maps on our mobile devices and in-flight Wi-Fi when we travel. In the medical field, “digital plasters” monitor and transmit patient vital signs. Wireless sensors are even being used to monitor carbon transfer in a Costa Rican rainforest.

Perhaps the most familiar wireless application is the mobile phone, where smartphones now account for 55% of all mobile subscriptions globally. Today’s cellphones use 3G and 4G wireless communications systems. The data transmission standards for 4G are extremely fast at 100 Megabits per second up to 1 Gigabit per second, and 5G systems currently in development will be even faster. Commercial 5G networks are expected to be available in 2020. According to a forecast from Ericsson, there will be 550 million 5G subscriptions, 8.9 billion mobile subscriptions, 8 billion mobile broadband subscriptions, and 6.1 billion unique mobile subscribers by 2022.

Future Expansion

According to Forrester Research, global spending on telecommunications equipment is currently about US$345 billion, and our hunger for generating and exchanging data anytime, anywhere continues to increase. This is good news for our industry since both wired and wireless communications rely heavily on semiconductor devices, driving ongoing innovation at Lam and among our chipmaking customers. In fact, according to Gartner, the sector is expected to account for nearly 30% of worldwide semiconductor revenue by the end of 2017.

As communications become even faster and more secure, wireless applications will continue to expand and shape the way we communicate both now and in the future.

 

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