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Comprehensive integrated tests help capture opportunities as 5G accelerates IoT boom
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In recent years, governments and businesses alike have been keen on the development of 5G. However, most operators around the world only just kicked off their 4G services in 2012 (2014 in Taiwan). After only six short years, they have yet to see positive returns on the large sums they invested in their 4G licenses. So why are they rushing to come up with the next generation communication standard- According to Yong-Fen Hsieh, chairwoman of Materials Analysis Technology Inc (MA-tek), 5G communication will enable high-speed transmission that will make possible a great number of applications that existing technologies do not allow. 5G networks will provide high-speed connections to back-end cloud data centers for everything from transportation, healthcare, and pollution control infrastructures to consumer devices. Many countries and companies around the world are aggressively pursuing the development of the next generation communication technology in view of the numerous possibilities it offers.

Take the development history of mobile communication in Taiwan for example. 2G (GSM) began in 1998, 3G (WCDMA) in 2005 and 4G in 2014. Mobile communication standards underwent three major changes over that short, 20-year period, each of which introduced broader bandwidth and faster networks that enabled different data transfer applications. In the 2G era, GSM was focused on voice communication. The availability of various 3G CDMA technologies made sending texts and photos a norm and allowed limited access to the Internet and online videos. Going into 4G, mobile communication officially moved into high gear, paving the way for a myriad of applications for city infrastructure, healthcare, manufacturing and even entertainment. The advent of 5G will expand the smart foundation, allowing wide-range and higher-quality applications. High-frequency and high-speed 5G communication will enable 3D image transmission, face recognition, fingerprint authentication, voice control and real-time video transmission. Couple 5G development with cloud servers and increasingly advanced computational devices and the sky is the limit.

Considering the great IoT opportunities that 5G has to offer, governments around the globe are scrambling to establish new standards in an attempt to gain market dominance. At present, EU has decided to allocate the 694Mhz-790Mhz band to 5G communication, and major telecom operators can expect to receive 5G licenses by June 2020. In the US, the largest wireless communication service provider, Verizon Wireless, is working with Korea-based Samsung to begin 5G deployment and testing in five cities. T-Mobile US Inc also plans to kick off 5G services in 2019 and complete nationwide roll-out by 2020. China's state-led 5G development is based on its Made in China 2025 initiative. They completed the world's largest 5G trial network in March 2017.

In Taiwan, Chunghwa Telecom, the 5G Technology Program Office of the Department of Industrial Technology of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Industrial Technology Research Institute and the Institute for Information Industry co-founded the Taiwan 5G Alliance. Their goal is to begin testing of a 5G trial network in late 2018 or early 2019 and launch a pre-commercial 5G network by 2020. However, Hsieh comments that the Taiwan high-tech industry specializes in product design and manufacturing. The establishment of standards will largely be determined by market scale and how fast the technology can be developed and widely adopted. Taiwan-based vendors have an advantage in OEM manufacturing. They cannot bet on one standard in a market still split between many standards. They will have to closely monitor market dynamics to stay ahead of the game.

Hsieh also points out that the Taiwan high-tech supply chain can target China as a 5G IoT market. From a system perspective (e.g. city infrastructure, banking and finance), China is strong. It has a large market, and its system integrators have mature technologies and extensive experience. Taiwan-based vendors, on the other hand, have a great deal of experience in the design and production of individual components. They are able to produce premium products and respond promptly to customer needs, so manufacturers in other parts of the world have a hard time competing with them. It will take China some time to foster talent in this field. As such, Taiwan and China complement each other very well.

As to using 5G technologies for IoT development, Hsieh thinks there are still challenges to overcome. One of the main challenges will be signal interference. Generally, communication standards used to involve a single protocol, like GSM, CDMA, WLAN or Bluetooth. Electronic devices usually operate on a single communication protocol. It was not common for multiple standards to operate concurrently, so interference was not a serious issue. However, IoT devices often need to use multiple communication protocols for data transmission, so it is typical to integrate several types of communication chip into one device. Furthermore, current IoT devices mostly use low-frequency and low-power-consumption communication standards, which already causes interference problems. The situation will only get worse when 5G protocols are also incorporated.

The industry may be able to overcome the challenge by incorporating test mechanisms. But, with the requirements set by IoT device manufacturers, testing one single communication standard is no longer enough. Test laboratories must provide integrated testing services that validate not only the chips that combine different standards but also the entire fabrication process of chips supporting a single standard to ensure glitch-free operation of IoT devices. Experience and up-to-date testing equipment are essential for labs that aim to provide integrated testing services, said Hsieh. Take MA-tek for example. MA-tek is among the few Taiwan vendors capable of providing standardized commercial services for material structure and fabrication process analyses. MA-tek has acquired state-of-the-art instruments, including high-end tools such as transmission electron microscopes (TEM), scanning electron microscopes (SEM), focused ion beam microscopes (FIB), secondary ion mass spectrometers (SIMS -7f), and, more recently, 3D X-ray microscopes, nano probes and next-generation high-resolution scanning acoustic microscopes (SAT). Coupled with extensive knowledge and experience accumulated through years of serving a wide range of high-tech businesses, MA-tek is able to provide outstanding advice and counseling services.

Hsieh thinks the combination of 5G and IoT will give birth to an abundance of new opportunities, but it is uncharted territory for most equipment and system providers. With no successful examples to follow, they have to rely on in-house simulations and testing to validate all their designs. Hsieh suggests that vendors work with highly-experienced labs to conduct comprehensive tests on equipment and systems before delivery to guarantee reliable and smooth operation.

Yong-Fen Hsieh, chairwoman, Materials Analysis Technology Inc.

Yong-Fen Hsieh, chairwoman, Materials Analysis Technology Inc, holds that integrated tests are vital to IoT systems seeking to incorporate 5G technologies.

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