Verification Requirements For 5G To Enable A Perfect Storm Of New Applications

From fixed wireless access to mission-critical devices, new 5G applications require taking a system-wide view.


In my role as product management lead, to understand drivers for verification requirements and semiconductor markets I often exchange thoughts with customers what they think the next “killer app” would be. Ten years back, the drivers seemed pretty clear and segmented on a small number of applications, but the outlook today in 2019 is much more diverse. 5G networking seems to be a binding element, hyper-connecting several different markets. It looks to me like a bright future for verification and system design.

One set of datapoints I often look at is the graph of IC end-use markets and growth rates from IC Insights. The bulletin “Automotive and IoT Will Drive IC Growth Through 2021” shows that ICs for cellphones were estimated to dominate the 2017 market size with about $89.7B at 8% expected CAGR ’16 to ‘21 and about 25% market share in 2017. It shows the “internet-connected portions” of ICs for the automotive and IoT markets to have the most significant future growth potential at a CAGR somewhere between 13% and 14%. Overall it charts 12 domains: cellphones, standard PCs, tablets, game consoles, set-top boxes, gov/military, digital TV, servers, wearables, medical, automotive, and IoT. Back in 2007, the comparable chart showed only nine domains: ICs for digital still cameras, base-stations, smartcards, 802.11 WLAN, Bluetooth, cellphones, standard PCs, automotive and digital TVs. ICs for PCs dominated with 33% of the estimated share in 2007 and a 10% expected CAGR. 10 years on we have new applications, and more of them.

So why does specifically 5G excite me as a product manager in system design and verification? It combines several markets and is a market that needs verification as part of Intelligent System Design. Consider the following 5G network topology:

End devices—like phones, cars, and robots—are connected via distributed radio heads to small urban cells about every 200 meters, to building femtocells or directly to fixed wireless networks that could replace the last mile of copper to homes. All of this is running at mmWave above 24Ghz for 5G. An optical front haul network is connecting everything to the edge that has shared baseband as well as AI servers and enables ultra-low latency so we do not have to try to change the speed of light after all—that’s the running joke—as otherwise, the 1ms latency target to the cloud would not be possible. The edge connects to the internet backbone, which also collects data from the sub-6-GHz 4G and 5G radio heads on masts, located farther apart every 2km.

This network, as illustrated, presents a considerable challenge for system design and verification. What data must be present and at which location to low latency access? What are the right capacities for network bandwidth in various areas? What security mechanisms do we need to keep hackers away?

Several application areas look very promising, all with specific requirements for Intelligent System Design and verification.

For starters, next-generation phones will use enhanced mobile broadband that offers faster speed, lower latency, and higher capacity for items like on-the-go, ultra-high-definition video, virtual reality, and other advanced applications. These are the traditionally large and complex designs requiring full-chip emulation. Application processors in the 4G era were 600 million gates and above. 5G IC architecture demands higher capacity within the same or smaller power envelopes. Emulation and high-capacity FPGA prototyping at high speeds are instrumental for success in this domain.

In parallel, fixed wireless access (FWA) has existed for years, primarily in areas with no viable wired broadband. 5G networks, particularly in the millimeter-wave spectrum, can deliver speeds of more than 100 Mbps to the home, making it a viable alternative to wired broadband in many markets, especially in markets without fiber. 5G FWA could represent a new revenue stream for wireless operators, especially in areas where consumers don’t already have access to fiber to the home or cable broadband. From an IC perspective, FWA marks an extension to traditional base-station development, increasing complexity requires system emulation and prototyping. Expect design sizes in this domain to be large, well above 200 million gates.

Next, with explosive growth in the number of connected devices, 5G unlocks the potential of the Internet of Things by enabling more connections at once—up to one million per square kilometer—with low power consumption. 5G also competes against other technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Zigbee, and ICs in this domain are much smaller—often below 32 million gates—and very power-sensitive. For system design and verification, users require multi-device simulation and emulation to ensure quality of service (QoS) and validate performance. Mixed-signal verification is critical in this domain, too.

Finally, mission-critical and control devices are a vital application in the era of 5G. Connected devices are becoming increasingly instrumental in applications that demand absolute reliability, like, for instance, medical devices and vehicle safety systems. Latency is a limiting factor, and as such, 5G opens the door to new use cases in healthcare, utilities, traffic management, and other time-critical contexts. As with IoT, design size is likely small-to-medium—below 150 million gates—but functional safety complexity drives the need for system emulation and prototyping.

And these are just some examples! Talking to future consumers, our children, as described in Intelligent System Design—Why the Future Does Need Us!, makes it clear that we have not even imagined many of the future applications. According to them and the forecasts, the future will see more applications across various domains. Some may not reach the mainstream but compared to a more limited number of bets one could make 10 years ago as per the analysis of IC Insights data above, in the context of hyper-connectivity enabled by 5G networks we appear to be looking at a perfect storm of new applications. I can’t wait!

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