Frictionless Networking: A Megatrend that Requires Powerful RF Solutions

Frictionless networking, virtualization, and hierarchical AI are three technological megatrends that will transform how we live and work. This article on frictionless networking is the first in a series examining how GlobalFoundries solutions enable each of these megatrends.

Although the transistor debuted nearly three quarters of a century ago, paving the way for solid-state integrated circuits and ushering in the electronics revolution, the last two years may have been the most momentous ones ever in the industry’s history.

In 2019, geopolitical tensions brought a sharp focus to the strengths and vulnerabilities of the global semiconductor supply chain. Because of the need for a reliable supply of chips for all manner of products, semiconductors suddenly became a flashpoint for industrial, commercial and foreign-relations policies.

Then, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, awareness of the raw power of the world’s digital infrastructure grew, as people began to depend on it more heavily than ever before to fight the contagion, to run companies remotely, to educate students, to socialize, and for many other things large and small.

Tom CaulfieldGlobalFoundries (GF) CEO Tom Caulfield said that ever since society realized supply chain issues and the pandemic weren’t short-term crises, there’s been a deepening awareness of the importance of digital technologies and how they will forever change our lives.

“It’s amazing to see not only how pervasive and resilient the digital infrastructure had become over the last decade, and yet how little of its full potential was exploited until COVID-19,” he said. “We started to imagine not a new normal, but a better normal. This better normal will come from exploiting the capabilities of our pervasive, expanding and improving digital infrastructure. …. This is not just an opportunity for our industry, it’s our calling.”

As a result, GF sees three megatrends and one enormous hurdle that have emerged, Caulfield said, and GF solutions are critical to all of them. The first is frictionless networking – a ubiquitous “always-on, seamless, intelligent and secure connection, 24 hours, seven days a week” – which we’ll explore in greater depth below in this blog.

The second megatrend is pervasive deployment of virtualization. “Network function virtualization (NFV) is a great example,” Caulfield said. “This is where network processing is done in the cloud, and data is transported from dumb access points to the cloud for processing. This results in significant scale advantages similar to the value proposition of cloud storage and computing we enjoy today. NFV significantly improves bandwidth and speed, and it does it at a much lower cost and power point. Also, given the flexible nature of a virtualized network, the time and effort to deploy new services can be enhanced, as the new feature will come via a software push versus a hardware upgrade to the user.”

The final megatrend is hierarchical artificial intelligence (AI), or “AI Everywhere,” from devices to sensors, from the edge to the cloud. “Data is the new gold, but it is only ore if we can extract it from a raw, unstructured format and use it to gain insights, take action and make decisions,” Caulfield said. “The amount of structured and unstructured data generated in just the last two years alone is greater than all of the data generated before, yet we only use 3% of all this data. Hierarchical AI is the key to extracting value from immense, unstructured data by parsing it to extract important information, then compressing it for more efficient transport to compute and storage.”

While each megatrend has its own hurdles and challenges, and reducing power consumption is a make-or-break issue for all of them, the move to a digital future is unstoppable.

Frictionless Networking is Coming

Peter Gammel“Our vision for future network connectivity is that you’re not even going to know what network you’re connected to, your device will automatically find it, authenticate it and optimize it for bandwidth, latency and other critical attributes,” said Peter Gammel, Vice President and CTO of GF’s Mobile and Wireless Infrastructure Business Unit. “We call this frictionless networking because when we talk about how we see connectivity playing out in the years to come as wireless systems make use of increasingly fast RF and mmWave spectrum, we don’t want to get lost in the details of 5G, 6G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or some other network protocol.

“Instead, the key point is this: No matter how you connect, the last hop between a network and your device is always going to be wireless,” he said, “and that means even though there’s already been a virtual explosion of radio frequency (RF) content in all sorts of devices, the trend is only going to accelerate.”

Gammel said it isn’t just smartphones, tablets and PCs that will depend on frictionless networking capabilities. A universe of diverse products will need it to function, in applications as varied as Industry 4.0 (i.e., smart, automated manufacturing); the Internet of Things (IoT); wearables for health and wellness; automotive systems like advanced driver assistance (ADAS); and others too numerous to mention.

The challenges are enormous. Data traffic at key network hubs is on a steep incline – up to 40% in some cases – and those rates are only going to increase in the coming years, Gammel said in a keynote address at the 2021 IEEE International Reliability Physics Symposium. “Future networks will require extreme capacity and data rates, much higher spectral efficiency, ultra-low latency, much higher reliability and robust security.”


The Best RF Technology Will Carry the Day

That’s all well and good, but anyone who has experienced difficulty in connecting to a network might wonder how we will ever reach a state of frictionless networking. What will it take to get there?

“I’ve been in this industry for 40 years, and the way you measure success has never changed: It always comes down to leadership in RF technologies, which are essential to the performance and power consumption of front-end modules (FEMs) and power amplifiers, the most critical elements of a wireless communications system,” Gammel said.

He said that to maximize the use of available spectrum, the push is on to drive output power as close to reliability limits as possible. That plays to GF’s strengths as the longstanding leader in many different RF technologies, including RF-SOI (RF silicon on insulator), FD-SOI (fully depleted silicon on insulator) and SiGe (silicon germanium) solutions.

“Our RF SOI solutions are the go-to choice for integrated FEMs and beamformers in 5G base stations and smartphones,” Gammel said. “Meanwhile, because our 22FDX™ FD-SOI solution combines RF, analog, embedded memory, and advanced logic in one chip, they offer unmatched peak performance and energy efficiency for the integration of FEM elements like data converters, LNAs, power amplifiers (PAs) and switches with a transceiver.”

In addition, he said, GF’s SiGe solutions are widely used in Wi-Fi and cellular power amplifiers, and SiGe technology provides a path to the terahertz frequencies needed for future network architectures.


“The Best is Yet to Come”

Gammel laid out what he sees as the other necessary ingredients for frictionless networking. “Turnkey assembly and test capabilities are going to become more important as the industry moves to terahertz frequencies, because the interface between circuits and packaging becomes more critical to performance. Do you put the antenna on the package or on the die, and what is the best configuration?” he said.

Open interfaces are another requirement. “Proprietary interface protocols never win. Open interfaces are critical in building an ecosystem, and we’re seeing this already in network infrastructure and in standards-setting activities,” he said. One example is the 5G Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN) initiative.

Also, non-terrestrial networks that make use of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations are key to delivering connectivity to underserved geographies. “The commercial deployment of LEO constellations isn’t science fiction, it’s happening. The Starlink constellation from SpaceX is an example,” he said.

“Much work remains to be done and many technology innovations are still required to leverage the vast, untapped spectrum from 100 GHz to 1 THz, but we have made great progress already and the best is yet to come,” Gammel said.

The next article in this series will focus on the virtualization megatrend.