5G Hardware Components: Advancements and Future Trends

As carriers and other stakeholders continue to adopt fifth-generation (5G) technology, demand for the mobile network will increase. However, there are key infrastructure challenges necessary to overcome for optimal 5G deployment. Understanding 5G hardware components and how they work is useful knowledge to stakeholders figuring out how to solve those challenges and working on 5G deployment.

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The Network Functions of Major 5G Hardware Components

While the 5G ecosystem is full of emerging technologies, its hardware components are similar to existing fourth-generation (4G) LTE hardware components. However, there are three major differentiators in 5G technology: massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) systems, the integrated radio, and edge computing.

Massive MIMO

Massive MIMO technology has the potential to increase the data rate of a 5G network. These structures contain a large number of small antenna arrays, which transmit signals to and receive signals from compatible devices.

5G, like other wireless technologies, relies on base stations to handle cellular traffic. However, base stations with single-input single-output systems had very low throughput. On a cellular network, they were not able to support multiple connected devices with high reliability. As the number of wireless users and interconnected devices continued to grow, single-input systems were not able to support their data needs.

As a result, base stations began to adopt MIMO technologies, such as single-user MIMO, multiuser MIMO, and network-user MIMO. However, wireless users were still increasing exponentially. (A report from Cisco predicts that there will be 5.3 billion internet users by 2023, an increase from 3.9 billion in 2018.) Eventually, even these MIMO technologies were not able to support growing data needs, and a faster solution was necessary.

Enter massive MIMO. These systems are a natural evolution of other MIMO systems present in base stations. Since this type of MIMO groups hundreds of antennas together, the base station focuses energy into a smaller area. As a result, a large-scale MIMO base station provides greater network capacity and improved coverage versus a single-input station or other forms of MIMO technology.

However, there are challenges to implementing this technology in a 5G base station. Like the name implies, these systems are very large and not aesthetically pleasing. As a result, cities are hesitant to adopt this technology. Additionally, massive MIMO requires lots of computing power, which is expensive. If a carrier scales this type of MIMO to a smaller, more appropriate size and improves system efficiency, large-scale MIMO may become more appealing to city stakeholders.

Integrated Radio

5G networks operate on three types of frequencies: low band, which runs on a spectrum below 1 GHz; midband, which operates between 1 GHz and 6 GHz; and high band or millimeter wave, which operates above 6 GHz. Since 5G infrastructure components are similar to 4G infrastructure components, low band and midband are common among mobile 5G carriers.

However, the millimeter wave frequency band, which promises 5G’s famous faster speeds and lower latency, poses unique infrastructure challenges. This network is unable to transmit over long distances and requires specialized infrastructure to increase its data rate and network capacity. As of 2021, millimeter wave is more appropriate for large-scale applications, such as Internet of Things (IoT) communication networks.

One way that network operators are making millimeter wave more accessible is through integrated radio units. These devices integrate the 5G antenna, radio, and digital unit into a single component, making them easier to install. As a result, carriers are able to install multiple radio units within locations that need 5G millimeter wave coverage. As a result, businesses and organizations are able to adopt millimeter wave at a more efficient rate.

Edge Computing

To enable low latency for 5G, it is necessary to bring the compute out of the core network—or the internet—and bring it to the edge. Edge computing places resources closer to end users, usually at the edge of existing core network coverage. With mobile edge computing, the network sees reduced latency and increased coverage. As a result, the network is able to meet International Telecommunication Union latency targets. Mobile operators are able to serve a greater number of customers without relying on their core networks.

However, edge computing poses certain issues. Having multiple computers in public spaces increases the chances of vandalism and presents security issues. Stakeholders will also need to strategize how to provide enough power for these components in rural locations. Power consumption may increase, and overheating may occur without proper cooling systems.

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Upgrading Components to Support 5G and 4G Signals

The transition to the 5G network presents certain challenges, but it looks different from past wireless transitions. The migration to other wireless networks, including second generation (2G), third generation (3G), and 4G, required a carrier to phase out older hardware components and build wireless infrastructure from scratch. While some forklift upgrades are necessary for 5G, the wireless technology is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

5G will replace older 3G equipment as the deployment progresses. However, low-band and midband 5G networks run on similar frequency bands as some 4G LTE sites. As a result, manufacturers are able to repurpose these base stations for 5G applications. For example, manufacturers are converting 4G radios into 5G devices that also support the 4G network.

A 5G smartphone will require a 5G chipset to support the 5G network. Carriers will need to develop new equipment and hardware and replace older 4G components to make room for 5G resources. Depending on the company, hardware and software upgrades are necessary to develop a 5G phone.

Manufacturers are also building small-cell networks to augment existing macro cell towers. If a very large number of users rely on a single network in a contained area, the cell tower will become overloaded and experience low performance.

With small cell technologies, however, the telecom operator can concentrate scarce network resources. As a result, the wireless network capacity increases, allowing the carrier to support growing demand. By building small cells around small businesses, public venues, and homes, carriers can improve 5G connectivity for their subscribers.

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Top Manufacturers of 5G Hardware Components

As the 5G standard continues to evolve, service providers are making advancements in its hardware. Two of the leading manufacturers for 5G systems include Qualcomm and Huawei. In February 2021, Qualcomm unveiled a 5G modem that can support a 5G speed up to 10 Gbps, the first modem-to-antenna platform to do so. This 5G chip has the potential to increase connectivity on smart devices.

Network operator Huawei is a leading manufacturer for 5G telecom equipment. For example, the company launched a new generation of 5G massive MIMO in 2020, which reportedly has a lower power consumption of 4G RU, an increased bandwidth up to 440 MHz, and a lighter weight than the industry average. Huawei is working toward building ultra-lean sites for the 5G rollout, which will likely alleviate some of the network’s infrastructure challenges.

In addition to Huawei equipment and Qualcomm technologies, many other companies are making advancements within the 5G market. Mobile device manufacturers appear keen to develop in-house 5G components or partner with other leading telecom companies to do so. In 2020, for example, Samsung, along with Intel, reached speeds of 305 Gbps on a 5G User Plane Function (UPF) Core. The UPF is an essential function of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project standards for 5G infrastructure.

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Future Component Development for 5G Technology

With advanced 5G mobile networks, consumers enjoy enhanced mobile broadband and faster wireless communication. However, certain challenges arise when developing 5G tech, and further advancements are necessary to unlock the potential of the 5G spectrum. Many 5G device manufacturers are working toward two key developments: efficient power amplifiers and system-on-a-chip (SoC) technology.

Efficient Power Amplifiers

Power amplifiers are machines that increase the magnitude of a 5G signal. These devices are a key component of 5G design. However, there are certain barriers to developing a highly available 5G architecture. Power amplifiers run on one of two competitive semiconductor technologies: silicon-based laterally diffused metal oxide (LDMOS) or gallium nitride (GaN).

LDMOS is less expensive than GaN but is not able to meet 5G performance requirements. However, GaN semiconductors are expensive and require complex manufacturing processes. For future 5G applications, a service provider will need to determine how to either create GaN semiconductors efficiently or to increase LDMOS performance.

System-on-a-Chip Solutions

SoC may also improve 5G service. This radio hardware aims to develop energy-efficient, application-specific integrated circuits that perform multiple functions. Unlike a baseband processor or an RF transceiver, SoC chips have a wider range of applications.

As a result, 5G equipment will become more compact and easier to deploy, especially for large-scale IoT devices. In the future, advanced SoC technology may replace multiple base station and network functions, further reducing costs and energy consumption.

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Mobilizing 5G Networking Gear

In 2021, mobile carriers are rolling out 5G cellular networks and improving mobile broadband. The 5G infrastructure market is growing. Businesses and organizations are examining their options for advanced IoT applications, such as autonomous driving. However, significant work is necessary to achieve widespread 5G wireless connectivity—and witnessing these advancements will be an exciting experience.

As we progress into the 5G era, it is important to stay up to date on G network advancements. Learn more about 5G technology by participating in an IEEE Future Networks webinar.

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