18-08-2020 | | By Robin Mitchell
Intel and AMD have announced their partnership to produce 5G programable hardware. What is 5G, how will FPGAs help, and what is the target market for such radio devices? Learn about Intel 5G technology and their partnership with Analog Devices!
5G is the latest generation of cellular network technology, and will eventually replace older generations including 4G and 3G (they won’t disappear, but will become far less popular). While 5G brings in plenty of changes, the most noticeable changes are the significantly higher download speeds, and the ability to handle more devices per base station. The maximum speed of 4G is 300Mbps (let’s be honest, we don’t even get this), while the maximum speed of 5G is 10Gbps. For the average user, this will translate to videos not needing to buffer nearly as much (if at all), and quicker downloads. 5G also offers significantly better ping, with latencies as low as 1ms, while 4G has a ping of around 50ms. The frequency band of 5G is significantly different too; utilising frequencies between 30GHz and 300GHz. 4G, however, utilises frequencies less than 6GHz. While this does technically mean that 5G signals will have a shorter range, the use of high frequencies allows for more devices to be connected simultaneously. This, combined with new technologies such as MIMO antenna and beamforming mean that base stations will direct their radio signals towards devices which reduces interference. Because of its advancements in speed and latency, private 5G can even alleviate certain enterprise issues that Wi-Fi isn’t able to.
Integrating 5G into modern infrastructure requires plenty of new hardware, and in such a situation price is critical. For a time, one company, Huawei, was set to be one of the major hardware providers for the US and the UK, but the distrust of Chinese hardware (which can potentially be accessed by an official in China), has led to a widespread ban of Chinese equipment. While it can be argued that such a move is somewhat restrictive to technological development, it should also be considered that China has a long history of espionage, hacking, and infiltration. Since many critical services (such as emergency services), will be dependent on this hardware, it does not make sense to use foreign technology on a country’s infrastructure. The ban of Chinese equipment, however, has had a positive move for tech developers, and companies that would often be ignored in the integration of 5G hardware now have their chance to shine (especially considering that Huawei has over 48% of the worlds share in 5G technology).
Intel and Analog Devices have recently announced their plans to partner together to create the next generation of 5G radio hardware. Analog Devices, who specialise in analog circuitry including RF circuitry, will be combining their technology with Intel’s FPGA technology to produce programmable 5G hardware. The goal of the hardware is to provide customers with the ability to scale up hardware quickly, easily, and economically when needed.
One of the significant advantages to using FPGAs is that 5G standards can change over time, and installed hardware can be reprogrammed to cope with these changes. If such hardware were built using unchangeable physical silicon, then shifts to the standards would either be impossible or incur high costs to mobile network operators as masts would need changing. The use of such a topology also helps to separate the radio, software, and hardware components of a network and thus allowing 5G systems not to be tied to any specific vendor.
The use of FPGAs in such applications is increasingly becoming popular due to its ability to be reprogrammable in the field. One of the biggest problems with large scale infrastructure systems is its inability to be updated, and any updates often require incredibly expensive hardware replacement. This can also be particularly problematic when new standards are released or need updating as they fail to take security into account, or contain bugs. Software-based systems can be easily updated, but physical circuitry is a different game, and if protocols or standards are implemented in hardware, then replacement is impossible. Ironically, older technology based on DIP packages and sockets (such as those found in the 80s), are easier to upgrade as chips can be pulled out and replaces, but modern devices are built using BGA packages that are too impractical to modify. An FPGA, however, allows a designer to upload any design they want, and essentially moves the hardware realm into the software realm. Thus, any changes needed to be made to the hardware can readily be done, and with minimal effort.