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When we talk about 5G wireless, we tend to think about smartphones and the high-speed broadband that 5G can provide. But smartphones are just one of many uses for 5G.

In addition to increased performance, 5G offers other features such as low latency, low power consumption, significant security and network sharing. This means it’s an attractive technology for a wide range of applications, including the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, virtual reality (VR) / augmented reality (AR) and metauniverse headsets, surveillance, healthcare, industry, automotive and more. more.

In fact, industrial machine-to-machine (M2M) applications are expected to account for 70% of non-5G phone volumes by 2026, especially in China. IN Ericsson Mobility Report predicts that there will be 5.5 billion cellular IoT connections in 2027, compared to 1.9 billion in 2021.

Figure 1: 5G applications.

For these other applications, most of them require built-in wireless products that can provide a balance between sufficient performance, low latency (URLLC – see Figure 1) and low power consumption. They often do not require the high speeds of enhanced 5G mobile broadband capabilities; maybe just sending small data packets from a sensor or end device. Each specific application will have its own set of requirements, which means that flexibility is needed to provide an optimized solution in each case.

In the past, cellular broadband could not provide the right solution for many of these uses, as the products available used too much energy and were not compact enough. Instead, the preferred technologies are often Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – both still have their place as alternatives to cellular, but may not provide all the features and performance of 5G or the ability to connect to public networks.

This will change with the development of 5G Reduced Capability (RedCap). Also known as NR-Lite, the new 5G RedCap standard will be extremely important for non-phone applications. It provides performance comparable to LTE Cat. 4, about 85 Mbps (for single antenna / layer mode), while offering improved latency and other 5G features such as positioning (huge user potential in personal trackers), mmWave and unlicensed spectrum and network sharing. RedCap allows the use of simpler solutions than “standard” 5G, with reduced power consumption, thus allowing cheap deployment of 5G. RedCap promises a new option to integrate the baseband into a system on chips (SoCs), with cost-effective integration of the radio frequency integrated circuit, as well as maintaining a true half-duplex mode.

CEVA 5G blog - Table 1
Table 1: RedCap compared to inherited cellular technologies.

RedCap is expected to be widely used in applications such as industrial sensors, surveillance cameras (both for smart cities and home security) and in wearable devices. Its specification will be finalized in 5G Release 17, which is expected to be completed in 2022. Probably the first RedCap modules will be available in late 2023 or 2024, and RedCap will begin to gain significant market share in the second half of this decade.

Development requirements

Once semiconductor companies and OEMs decide that 5G is the right technology for them, they need to obtain or develop the right components. In particular, the 5G modem is an important part of the overall system, which significantly affects the performance, cost and power consumption of the 5G device being designed.

5G modems are available as ready-made parts from reputable vendors such as Qualcomm. However, these modem chips can be relatively expensive and do not have a good way to integrate into SoCs to reduce costs.

Instead, OEMs may want to develop application-specific 5G modems in their own company. In addition to keeping costs low, which is necessary for very price-sensitive applications, this will allow them to optimize the 5G modem for their own specific requirements. By creating their own 5G modem, companies can choose exactly where they want to compromise between performance, power consumption and latency. OEMs can also integrate 5G baseband into the SoC for connectivity, as shown in Figure 2.

CEVA 5G blog - Figure 2
Figure 2: 5G RedCap as part of a set of connectivity options for wearable devices.

As form factors become smaller, especially for IoT, a compact solution is also important. An attractive response is the use of Intellectual Property (IP) SoCs by one or more vendors integrated into a single-chip solution – compared to the multi-chip solution that would be required with a standard ready-made 5G chip.

All this is good, but developing 5G modems is a difficult and complex task. In the past, companies could start with a digital signal processor (DSP) core and then implement the modem primarily in software. Nowadays, this is not good enough – the energy consumption of this approach is too high to be used in most cases. To ensure high enough efficiency, you need to undertake many optimizations and speed up many of the baseband operations in specialized HW accelerators, which can be a daunting task for most product design teams.

Flexible platform approach

So far, we’ve looked at two 5G modem options. First, buying a special modem chip can not only be expensive and inflexible, but can also mean that you are dependent on an external vendor’s roadmap – thus making long-term planning difficult and increasing the risk of changes that negatively affect your design. Alternatively, you can devote a lot of resources to internal development, but this will have a big impact on time to market and increase risk.

There is a third way: use a flexible hardware and software platform that can be integrated into your own SoC. One of the key advantages of this type of approach – such as CEVA’s PentaG2, a complete IP platform that combines DSP with baseband processing accelerators – is flexibility. In addition to allowing a high-performance but energy-efficient modem to be designed in a cost-effective way, this is important because some of the technologies involved, such as RedCap, are not yet fully standardized. This means that any solution may potentially need to be redesigned to respond to future changes in 3GPP specifications, so HW / SW separation is crucial, as is the use of configurable and flexible HW accelerators.

With a flexible IP-based platform, it is also possible for companies to introduce their own algorithms and IPs to run on SoC, such as channel estimation, forward error correction or advanced equalization. This can be in addition to the core IP blocks provided with the platform, or replace one or more of the platform’s standard accelerators.

The amount of modification required depends on the application. For example, AR / VR headsets need to provide very low latency and excellent service quality to maintain a good user experience – and 5G is the only technology that can meet these requirements. As a portable consumer device, there are likely to be strict limits on the cost and power consumption of most AR / VR products. To meet all of these conflicting requirements, the design team will likely need to customize the 5G modem extensively in their product.

In summary, for the development of 5G modems, the two main options so far have been to buy a ready-made chip from a modem supplier or to engage in home development. Both have drawbacks: 5G modem chips can be expensive and you can’t optimize their design. Alternatively, doing everything yourself can be slow, expensive and risky, assuming you can even hire enough of the right people.

However, a flexible hardware / software platform can significantly reduce barriers to entry for semiconductor companies and OEMs who want to handle the design of a 5G modem on their own, whether for new markets that are opening up, such as IoT or just for 5G phones. With this platform approach, designers can integrate their 5G modem into SoC, and with the right platform, this can allow for both scalability and flexibility to optimize 5G design for specific requirements.

Nir Shapira is Business Development Director at CEVA’s Mobile Broadband Business Unit.


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