What is the role of advanced and especially compound semiconductors in paving the way to the next generation of mobile connectivity? Electronics industry experts will offer insights into key aspects of the radio frequency (RF) challenge – from materials and devices to ICs and modules – at ITF Beyond 5G at SEMICON Europa 2022, Nov. 15-18 in Munich, Germany. SEMI spoke with Michael Peeters, vice president of R&D for connectivity at imec, about what the next generation of connectivity will entail and moves the electronics industry needs to make to get there.
Peeters shared his views on semiconductor connectivity and mobile trends ahead of his SEMICON Europa opening keynote on November 15, 2022. Join us at the event to meet experts from imec and other key industry influencers. Registration is open.
SEMI: Imec’s ITF Beyond 5G tagline is Exploring Next-Gen Mobile Connectivity. Please share more about what this new generation of mobile connectivity will look like and why we need it.
Peeters: When it comes to the next generation of wireless communication – often called 6G – it’s clear that we’re moving towards even higher speeds, lower latency and more connections. You could say that’s more of the same, and it inevitably brings up scenarios of downloading movies with even higher definitions at even higher speeds. After all, we tend to imagine the future as a continuation of current trends.
But I think the applications for which we will truly need 6G are those that go beyond human limits. They thrive on new modes of interaction between humans and machines and – most importantly – between machines. In the first case, we’re talking about use cases such as truly mixed reality that merges real and virtual worlds – or holography. In the second case – machine-to-machine communication – we enter a domain where the bandwidth limitations of the human senses are no longer relevant. Autonomous entities can send each other masses of data to perform federated learning.
The easiest example is probably autonomous driving, with vehicles communicating with each other and the road infrastructure. But I’m convinced that’s only the beginning. More use cases will no doubt follow, and at least some of them will help to address the fundamental challenges that humanity is faced with. We’re heading for very interesting times!
SEMI: Possibilities we can barely imagine. And yet one of your messages is that we need to start on the hardware developments today. Why not wait until the future is a little clearer? At least until the dust settles on 6G standards.
Peeters: Because then we’ll be too late. You see, for some innovations there’s indeed more than enough time. The only thing you need to do to make them happen, in a short period of time, is to throw enough funds and manpower at them. But other innovations are time-constrained. They need to run their due course, no matter how much money or people you put behind them. When it comes to standards, it would be a waste of effort to standardize a technology for which there is no economically viable implementation.
And that’s particularly true for breakthroughs at the semiconductor level. To enable 6G, we will have to develop a totally new manufacturing platform for some key device hardware. That’s not something we can put off for even a few years. I’m not saying we need the whole shebang by 2025, but we need to prove that there’s a credible path by then.
SEMI: What makes this new generation of mobile connectivity so challenging at the semiconductor technology level?
Peeters: The obvious solution to overcoming the throughput and latency limitations of 5G, and the congestion of currently used radio bands, is to move to higher frequencies – even above 100 GHz. One of the main problems is that silicon cannot cost-efficiently handle those frequencies.
If we want small-form front-end modules that offer high performance with low energy to keep costs in check, we need to look towards compound semiconductors and integrate them with CMOS, which will remain the technology of choice for components such as the digital signal processing. It’s a process that involves challenges on all levels, from the epitaxy to the circuitry – all addressed by imec and its partners within the Advanced RF research program.
SEMI: Indeed, imec is one of the main drivers behind connectivity innovations. But how important is it for imec to collaborate with other industry leaders?
Peeters: You know, times are gone when the tech industry could move forward through a sequential innovation process, where advances at the semiconductor level are later picked up by a range of applications. Scaling is no longer a matter of making transistors smaller, but rather relies of integration of new materials, complex integration schemes, and so on. All of that is very application-specific, which means you need that application perspective from the very start.
More than ever, a core technology R&D organization such as imec cannot deliver the best possible results without strong ties to the full tech industry’s ecosystem. Which is why I’m so honoured to get major representatives from all domains together at ITF Beyond 5G at SEMICON Europa.
Meet the Expert
Michael Peeters is VP of R&D for Connectivity at imec. Previously, he was CTO for both the wireline and wireless business lines at Nokia. Peeters holds a Ph.D. in Applied Physics and Photonics from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and white papers. He holds patents in the access and photonics domains. An electrotechnical engineer by training, he is a senior member of IEEE and a Fellow of the VUB.
Serena Brischetto is Director of Marketing and Digital Engagement at SEMI Europe.