The Future of 5G Depends on These Tiny Pieces of Hardware

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Like most other technologies, wireless connectivity periodically improves. The problem is, each generation is not compatible with the previous one.

Recently, people have been getting excited about 5G technology — the G in the name stands for “generation” — but rolling it out depends on some crucial pieces of hardware: circuits.

A circuit board contains some of the main components that make the phone work, and the circuits are collectively like the “brain” of the phone. Below, we’ll take a look at the status of 5G now and where it’s headed.

What Are the Advantages of 5G, and When Will It Be Available?

The main perks of 5G over 4G networks is significantly greater capacity and lower latency. Together, these characteristics should give users incredible speeds. The additional size is especially notable because many households expect extremely high data caps or unlimited usage. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough capacity on 4G to readily offer that amount. As a result, providers offer services at prohibitively high costs to keep traffic at manageable levels.

There will be a 5G standard set next year, but many carriers in the United States are offering 5G trials in selected cities. Verizon and T-Mobile are two of the popular providers testing 5G on a limited basis. Many providers aim for widespread availability by 2020. However, being able to meet that goal depends on the capability and availability of the necessary circuits.

The Switch to Different Circuit Boards

The smartphone market is intensely competitive. Manufacturers know users demand devices that are thinner, more powerful and lighter than the phones they had before. As a result, some companies that deal with smartphone components have started replacing conventional printed circuit boards (PCBs) with what is known as high-density interconnects (HDIs).

HDIs allow for more functions per unit area than PCBs, so they’re suitable for people who want slimmer smartphones. However, there is a very small margin of error allowed when forming HDIs. Manufacturers know the higher frequencies associated with 5G networks will necessitate stricter impedance control. Low-quality HDIs could cause signal degradation and lapses in data integrity.

However, the concerns with potential signal issues are not exclusive to HDI. Microwave and radio frequency signals are even more sensitive than those associated with high-speed data, plus more susceptible to different types of noise. That means manufacturers who work with PCBs for devices that handle those signals must implement solutions to reduce noise.

Designing Printed Circuit Boards to Handle Higher Frequencies

Circuit board experts are also starting to assess how to build PCBs to handle the millimeter frequencies used for 5G networks. Previously, those were only seen in military and research applications, but people say 5G could make millimeter frequencies part of the mainstream.

People familiar with current PCB materials and millimeter frequencies say they’ll need to study how PCB components handle the higher-frequency demands, and make adjustments accordingly. Also, propagation of the millimeter waves could also depend on seemingly minute characteristics of a PCB, such as the finish used for the conductors. With some materials commonly in use, the signal loss goes up along with the frequency, making them impractical for 5G applications.

The Market Must Mature Before Widespread Use Occurs

People who are keeping a close watch on the progression of 5G technology bring up Moore’s Law, which says every 18 months, the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles. Greater processing power is the outcome of that progress. The improved processing, plus the superior bandwidth of 5G, will lead to highly advanced circuitry being used in smartphones by 2020, according to predictions.

However, analysts say people may not be using those extremely high-tech devices by that year. That’s because the cost of 5G service and the price of the devices that can handle it may be too substantial for many users to afford. However, as the market matures, prices will come down and make 5G more accessible for a broader segment of the population.

Engineers are already aware of some of the most pressing limitations associated with current circuits and their incompatibility with the 5G network.

Fortunately, they are also looking for ways to combat those issues and build components made for the coming years.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes

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