Chipping in for 5G
As the global semiconductor crisis draws out, the eyes of the world’s tech giants are set on an island off the coast of south-eastern China: Taiwan.
Taiwan currently accounts for half of the world’s production of chips and produces 90% of the most advanced microchips, the demand for which has soared over the past year. COVID-19 outbreaks, US sanctions on Chinese technology and the worst drought that the island has seen in the last 50 years, have only worsened the situation, which is reaching a critical point.
According to predictions from Intel, the worst of the global chip shortage is yet to come, and it could be a year or two until supply catches up with demand. However, its effects have already become obvious. The chip shortage has forced automakers to reduce their productions, with Nissan making 500,000 fewer vehicles this year and General Motors having to interrupt its pickup truck production. Even giants such as Apple and Samsung are feeling the effects of the crisis, and have had to delay the launch of their newest models to ensure that the demand could be met.
From cars to computers or even home appliances, there are over 100 billion chips in use today. And with the advent of 5G, demand will only soar in the coming years. Pascal Lemasson, Head of Business Development, Europe, at chipmaker MediaTek speaks to Digital Bulletin about the impact of the crisis on the sector, and the importance of democratising access to 5G.
“The mission statement of MediaTek as a company is to bring the leading technology to everywhere and to most people, and we’ve been doing that now as a company for more than 20 years,” he says.
As the eighth largest semiconductor manufacturer worldwide, MediaTek is no newcomer in the sector. Taiwan’s second-largest company creates system-on-chip chips and develops the hardware IP, low-level software and systems that customers then use in their products. Historically, MediaTek is known for its leadership of the smart TV market, but it has over the past few months been expanding its focus to include other technologies, particularly smartphones and 5G equipment. In 2020, it was crowned the number one chipmaker in smartphone market share, a position previously held by San Francisco-based Qualcomm but also one that has been put at risk by the semiconductor shortage.
“Like many other companies, MediaTek is working to manage ongoing supply constraints,” Lemasson says. “It’s an industry-wide issue.”
In contrast to other chipmakers, MediaTek has held its leadership position over the last year, and it has managed to continue to supply significant upside for customers. Back in April, Lightread reported that the company was not concerned about the chip shortage and did not expect it to affect its shipments of chips to phone makers or its 5G devices. However, MediaTek has recently admitted to failing to meet all customer demand and is taking action to address the issue.
“We are working closely with our foundry partners and customers to find solutions and adjust to current supply limitations until the supply chain catches up to demands,” Lemasson says.
One of the reasons behind the semiconductor shortage is the rising demand for 5G products. During the chip crisis, MediaTek’s Dimensity 5G chipsets have proven to be worthy alternatives to the more popular Qualcomm’s 5G chipsets. After being deemed as the number one cell phone chip provider in Asia, the Middle East and South America, the company has set its sights on new horizons: Europe and the US.
“Regarding 5G specifically, last year we had a great year,” Lemasson says. “It was the first year where 5G was deployed massively, and we actually shipped close to 50 million units of 5G platforms overall, which is really significant. And that helped to grow our market share and our revenue.”
When it comes to 5G, MediaTek serves the smartphone market from two different angles. On one hand, the company focuses on ensuring affordable pricing that targets the mass market. On the other, MediaTek has also developed a premium line of chips, with models like the Dimensity 1000 or 1200, which have been used by top brands such as Xiaoming and Oppo.
“Why 5G?” Lemasson asks. “That’s a key question. I don’t think there is only one answer. But first of all, it just goes faster. It also has higher throughput and a much lower latency. And this lower latency is useful for gaming, for example, but also for new applications such as smart factories. Another advantage is that the consumers are expecting more and more data throughput, and they are using more and more data. So, from this angle, 5G brings a more efficient way to transmit data and use less power.
“Another advantage is that, within a cell base station, 5G brings on more possibilities to connect numerous devices. From this angle, 4G has some limitations but with 5G, you can use the same antenna to connect many more devices. And, of course, there is a migration towards what is called a standalone idea, which would mean that the full network, including the core network, is controlled by 5G, enabling new services for smart factories or smart cities.”
However, until the 5G standalone networks can become a reality, MediaTek is also developing products for hybrid networks that combine both 4G and 5G technology. Alongside Ericsson, the company has successfully completed several rounds of 4G/5G dynamic spectrum-sharing joint test. The proof of concept test demonstrated the technology’s readiness for commercial deployment, enabling the deployment of 5G coverage without having to wait for low band re-farming. It is also much more efficient in both cost and power use.
“Standalone is the way 5G started in China first from day one,” Lemasson says. “But for other regions, like the US and Europe, it is kind of a second step for many operators, as they deploy 5G. And this is important as a technology provider, that you’re able to test and demonstrate the end to end capabilities of this standalone deployment. So we’ve done that with several infrastructure vendors. And this announcement with Ericsson actually shows that we are able to demonstrate these types of capabilities and that we are ready for these deployments.
“And this partnership also demonstrates another thing, which is MediaTek’s expansion. MediaTek started a little over 20 years ago with many customers and partners in Asia. But for many years now, MediaTek has fostered global partnerships with industry leaders in the US or in Europe as well. And when we deploy very advanced technology, we do that together with some global technology leaders.”
Included within these new technologies is MediaTek’s involvement in IoT satellite connections. The company has conducted the world’s first public test of 5G satellites for IoT connections with MSL. The challenge of this technology is to connect multiple, or even millions of objects with ultra-low-power consumption networks.
“This is part of the 5G deployment but also an evolution of the previous cellular IoT technology,” Lemasson says. “So you’re using the same networks as the networks used by smartphones. But here, what we have demonstrated and tested is that MediaTek products and technology are ready to connect using the same standard in the IoT part of the 5G through satellite connectivity. We successfully demonstrated that proof of concept so that, when Inmarsat and or other operators need to deploy these services, our products will be ready.”
As it becomes clear, MediaTek is not afraid of innovation. In addition to its research in the smartphone sector, the company is also bringing 5G to PCs, in a collaborative project with Intel and is exploring the fixed wireless access segment through customer premises equipment, and bringing 5G to factory 4.0 transformation projects.
MediaTek is also developing a new solution called carrier aggregation, which will allow operators to use different frequency bands with the same device. This feature is available not only with 5G networks, but also with hybrid networks and in sub-6 and millimetre wave frequencies. By allowing customers to leverage several different frequency bands, the end result is improved coverage.
“5G is a great opportunity to give access to super high-speed internet connectivity, where the fibre cannot be deployed easily; and so we see a lot of momentum on this,” Lemasson says.
“One thing that is really specific to MediaTek’s 5G modems is that we’re using AI to optimise the power consumption of the modem itself. As a result, our 5G is 25 to 35% more power-efficient than our competitors. And this is very important because, as we are moving to higher and higher throughputs, one of the biggest challenges are the thermal issues, and power consumption becomes really the middle of the battlefield. So we’re bringing in interesting technology leveraging AI to improve that, and to realise that.”
When it comes to the future, MediaTek’s strategy is clear: innovate and explore.
As Lemasson explains, the company is eager to explore new segments and markets, from satellite connections to new types of home connectivity solutions. From using keyboards, to touch screens and now, voice systems, the relationship between people and devices is ever-changing. Looking at the future, Lemasson sees more connectivity between different devices, and more intelligent products, that will be able to interact with people more and more naturally, as well as learn from them and seamlessly adapt to their needs.
“As we move forward, the boundaries between one technology and another are actually disappearing,” Lemasson says. “We have seen that already, cellular networks coexist very well with Wi-Fi. All the connected devices within your home are connected seamlessly with mobile devices or nomadic devices. So all these buyers, all these silos will disappear moving forward. And that means that all this technology must coexist and for the benefit of the end-user.”
COVID-19, regulatory barriers and natural disasters have been some of the challenges that the semiconductor sector has had to face over the last year. However, the biggest challenge of all is ever-present: to be always at the forefront of technological innovation, and be able to not only survive, but thrive during these crises.