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Once considered a technology solely for defense programs like electronic warfare (EW) and jammers, gallium nitride’s advantages are becoming increasingly cost-effective and critical for commercial applications.

This is particularly true for telecom networks and the ever-increasing demands to deliver more data, faster, and to more places.

Gallium nitride (GaN) is a III/V direct bandgap semiconductor commonly used in RF amplifiers, switches, low noise amplifiers, and power electronics. GaN has become the technology of choice for high-RF power applications that require the transmission of signals over long distances such as EW, radar, base stations, satellite communications, and more.

GaN’s many advantages include increased power density and efficiency, and improved thermal properties that enable higher reliability and operating temperature. But until recently, GaN was out of reach for most outside the government and defense sphere.

Plastic Packaging
Device packaging technology has been a key factor in helping bring GaN costs in line with market volumes over the last few years. Making high-power GaN MMIC power amplifiers available in small, lightweight plastic packages improves the size, weight, and power (SWaP) performance for a range of commercial applications — optimizing system performance at a competitive price point.

In broadband cable, GaN is already being used in DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades. Multi-system operators (MSOs) can leverage GaN packaging and integration innovations to upgrade equipment within existing product footprints, saving installation time and cost while enhancing performance.

But GaN with advanced packaging technologies is also being deployed in commercial wireless infrastructure applications, such as small cell and cellular base stations. And it appears GaN is poised to be a critical technology for 5G and next-generation mobile.

5G
Scheduled for commercial launch in 2020, 5G is expected to offer significant advantages, including higher capacity and efficiency, lower latency, and ubiquitous connectivity.

In telecom networks, much of the network energy consumption comes from the RF chain. GaN’s superior properties of high power density, power added efficiency (PAE), gain, and ease in impedance-matching improve overall efficiency in the RF chain.

The build-out of 4G LTE networks is maturing, but there are many upgrades that will bridge the gap to 5G. We currently are in the 5G definition and proof-of-concept phase, but companies like Verizon are accelerating the timetable for early deployments focused on fixed-wireless access.

Early 5G trials began in 2013, and key technologies offering promising results in millimeter wave, massive MIMO antenna arrays, and beamforming are already in pre-commercial development. All of the base station OEMs are in the product trial mode. Companies like Qualcomm and Intel are testing 5G-enabled modems, such as the X50 modem, which works in the 28 GHz band. Qorvo and NanoSemi have published demonstration data on ultra-wide linearization of GaN devices for massive MIMO applications.

To meet the diverse set of 5G requirements, GaN manufacturers need to offer several variations that span a broad range of frequencies and power levels. With more than one GaN process to choose from, a designer can optimally match a GaN technology to an application.

Handsets
The efficiency offered by low-voltage GaN may someday make its way into the mobile handset.

Smartphones and phablets are already the hub of our connected lives, indispensable as a means of consuming enhanced entertainment and connecting us with mobile services and managing our smart homes from afar. That means mobile devices will have to handle more RF bands in the same or smaller space with greater range, reliable connectivity, and better battery life—and without getting hot in our hands.

GaN inherently has higher efficiencies than other competing technologies, thus resulting in a reduction in system power consumption. Maximizing the reduction in power consumption decreases thermal management challenges which could ultimately lead to improved battery life and overall device performance of user equipment such as smartphones or phablets.

Other 5G Applications
With properties including operating in high-temperature environments, GaN is well-suited for many different applications, from passively-cooled, all-outdoor tower-top base station electronics, to automobile applications, to cable boxes. Having a wide array of GaN technology choices will mean more applications being serviced throughout the world.

Superior RF performance and manufacturing cost reductions are already driving the growth of GaN. We first saw GaN products being designed into defense applications where systems were less cost sensitive and now we clearly see GaN being used in wireless infrastructure applications such as base stations. Strategy Analytics currently forecasts cellular infrastructure as the largest commercial segment for GaN in the next four years. And now, 5G is poised to continue the spread of GaN into commercial communications systems.

 

Scott Vasquez is a senior market strategy leader at Qorvo, a provider of RF solutions.

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