Thomas J Watson Research Center

The future mobile experience: millimeter Wave radios and 5G Wireless

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Last week was a special one for wireless communication engineers like myself. Last week was “Microwave Week,” or the week during which the largest radio frequency and microwave meetings of the year are hosted, bringing together thousands of engineers and scientists to learn, share ideas and envision the future of how humans interact using radio frequencies and microwaves. Microwaves and radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, similar to light and X-rays, but with much longer wavelengths.

Microwaves play a pretty big part in our lives. Beyond the AM/FM radio and microwave ovens, every device that uses a wireless connection uses a radio wave to function. For example, smartphones, Wi-Fi connections and the ever-increasing variety of Internet of Things (IoT) devices all use radio waves. Our ability to text message, share something on social media, browse the internet or send an email on a mobile device depends on radio waves.

During one of the Microwave Week events, IBM unveiled a new millimeter Wave (mmWave) radio representing a significant advancement in wireless communications. This mmWave radio is a fully-integrated 60GHz 32nm CMOS transceiver. The radio is designed to operate in a manner similar to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but it uses a higher frequency, allowing it to transmit data many times faster than today’s wireless communications capabilities.

millimter wave radio

An up-close look at IBM’s new mmWave radio, a fully-integrated 60GHz 32nm CMOS transceiver

mmWave radios are not part of commercially available portable devices today. There are three key technical challenges that have hindered the broad adoption of mmWave radios in portable devices, which are overcome by the IBM mmWave radio:

1) Previously, mmWave radios had to be pointed at each other to transmit data. The IBM mmWave radio can can establish connectivity in multiple directions at distances of about one meter.
2) The IBM mmWave radio is power efficient. The device consumes 250 milliwatts in either transmitter or receiver modes, communicating more than two gigabits per second (Gbps), or one thousand million bits per second. This is like sending one full length HD film from your phone to your friend’s phone in one second. Today, Bluetooth wireless technology consumes more energy per bit and transmits data orders of magnitude times slower.
3) The IBM mmWave radio offers a new method to reduce test costs by implementing digitally assisted on-chip test and calibration.

These technical advancements build on previous IBM breakthroughs in mmWave radios and pave the way for the proliferation of mmWave Gbps connectivity in a variety of portable applications and devices, including mobile phones and tablets. My team and I will also use the mmWave radio as part of the IBM Research Frontiers Institute hyperimager project, which is aimed at developing a tool for seeing beyond the visible spectrum.

Today’s business and consumer wireless needs are rapidly outgrowing 4G wireless. According to an Ericsson Mobility report, by 2019 there will be a ten-fold increase in mobile data traffic. Gartner, Inc. predicts that there will be 20.8 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020.

Throughout history, new mobile standards and technology have been released every decade to meet business and consumer wireless communications needs, starting with what is considered 1G, or first generation, in the 1980s, 2G in the 1990s, 3G in the 2000s, followed by the 4G standards and LTE (long term evolution) in recent years. The standards and technology of each wireless generation have always included technical advances and standardization of radio wave usage. For example, 4G include mobile phone standards, technologies for personal area networks and local area networks such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

It’s still unclear what specific technologies will be a part of 5G wireless, but experts predict 5G may be widely available by 2020. The mmWave radio is one way to ensure faster data access, lower latency, and better reliability to support critical applications in 5G. New technologies, including advancements in the use of mmWave radios in portable devices, are being explored now to support the major rollout of 5G.

What type of standards and technology do you think 5G should include? Clearly, here at IBM, we think mmWave radio is crucial.

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