Modem Technology & The Next Generation Of Mobile Connectivity

Akshay Agarwal, Director - Technology, MediaTek BangaloreMediaTek is a global fabless semiconductor company that develops tightly integrated, power efficient systems on chip (SoC) for mobile devices, home entertainment, network and connectivity, automated driving, and IoT.

Cellular modem technology is a growing collection of technologies that never seem to meet the world's needs. With close to 2 billion cellular devices sold every year, and companies that have achieved celebrity status from its mobile businesses, innovation needs to come first with cellular modems­ the heart of any mobile chipset. What started with 2G cellular modems in 90s is now a multimode, complex cellular modem that supports as many as six cellular technologies to enable the device of a jetsetter who expects it to work in every corner of the world. Adding new modem technology, such as 5G or New Radio (NR), pushes real-world requirements for higher spectral efficiency, increased capacity and enhanced services and drives ecosystem players to introduce innovation to carve out a competitive advantage.

Similar to other mobile technologies, 5G has been endorsed by the international mobile organization 3GPP in Release 15 (R15), the first full set of 5G standards finalized in 2018. 5G is designed to offer 20 times higher peak data speeds, 10 times lower latency and up to five times higher spectrum efficiency than today's state-of-the-art 4G technology. These technological advancements can enable new 5G use cases such as enhanced mobile broadband(eMBB)for services including AR, VR and holograms; massive machine type communication (mMTC)to enable the vast and constant web of interconnected IoT devices; ultrareliable low latency communication (URLLC) to support emerging areas such as drones and remote surgeries, and C-V2X in which a car automatically interacts with its surroundings to operate. These are just a handful of the ways that 5G promises to deliver an innovative future.

Multiple industry verticals could also benefit from key features, such as network slicing, in which a telco builds a virtual end-to-end network
that is optimized for speed, connectivity and capacity based on the application requirement. Network Function Virtualization(NFV)and Software Defined Radio are some of the hallmarks of 5G that can help power network slicing.

With all the benefits that 5G has to offer, there are multiple hurdles that the entire ecosystem needs to cross before it can be introduced to the masses.

Spectrum acquisition, infrastructure layout and the certification of the new technology make up the most significant costs

On the device front, 5G chipsets and handsets are anticipated to be two to three times more expensive than 4G. While one can argue that 5G has more to offer in terms of technology specifications, users are not likely to pay such huge premiums. Handset vendors will need to overcome significant cost issues generated from a more complex handset design to accommodate multiple antennas, and higher RF front end and chipset costs to support multiple new and old bands and lower levels of integration compared to 4G.

Similarly, telco operators will need to spend large sums of money to roll out the red carpet for 5G. Spectrum acquisition, infrastructure layout and the certification of the new technology make up the most significant costs. The greatest barrier-to-entry might be in acquiring spectrum since 5G is only effective when an operator has a batch of 100MHz spectrum (unlike 20MHz chunk in LTE), which requires deep pockets. This poses a problem for the majority of cash strapped, Indian operators, thanks to a price sensitive market that has resulted in low ARPUs of 100-150 Rs. The much anticipated spectrum auction in India is in limbo unless this issue can be resolved.

5G network deployment is undoubtedly a huge investment for telcos that can take place via two methods: Non-Stand Alone(NSA) and Stand Alone (SA). NSA deployment allows a telco to piggyback the 5G gNBs on the existing LTE EPC core so that 5G can be introduced relatively quickly and without significant investment. SA deployment requires a complete 5G core to be installed, which is a more expensive option. Since 5G is in initial stages, majority of the telcos are opting for 5G NSA deployment to test the waters without the impact on their budgets. It is predicted that SA deployments are likely to take-off in the second half of 2020, or even later a wise choice given the uncertain return on investment today.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding that dominant, single, large volume use case that will drive the adoption of 5G. Markets such as AR and VR, autonomous vehicles and smart cities are real use cases but can any of them drive the volumes that will help 5G reach economies of scale? Hopeful scenario would be a collection of all these use cases driving demand.

So, what does the future hold for 5G? According to industry analysts, it could be another three years before 5G technology moves from early adopters to an early majority and an additional three to five years before it becomes mainstream. A lot will depend on how the ecosystem players come together to overcome the challenges, how other factors start to cause a capacity crunch in today's 4G networks and how other data hungry and low latency applications take-off. 5G has all the essential ingredients to be successful. It is simply a matter of time when the world will be connected using 5G. In fact, the universe is already whispering about 6G with the research that is going on in Finland.