AiP advances ‘pivotal’ for 5G, 6G evolution

Research into antenna-in-package arena reveals how development in various substrate types and packaging methods can boost the roll-out of 5G mmWave networks and drive the forthcoming 6G market

Antenna-in-package (AiP) technology continues to evolve as it goes towards higher frequency, but the maturity of the supply chain and manufacturing scalability are two key areas that should not be overlooked, according to a research paper from analyst IDTechEx.

The AiP for 5G and 6G 2024–2034: Technologies, trends, markets study warns that both factors frequently act as a bottleneck for the adoption of new technologies, given their correlation with the final product cost.

This means design choices regarding types of antenna elements, substrate technology, materials and integration of passive devices are pivotal in the further evolution of 5G networks and future 6G infrastructures.

Specifically, the report suggests the integration of antennas with radio frequency components directly into semiconductor packages, tailored for mmWave applications and potentially extending into the sub-THz spectrum for 6G, promises much smaller footprints and enhanced performance. It added that the AiP market is directly linked with the 5G mmWave and future 6G markets, as AiP is expected to be utilised in all 5G mmWave-based stations and 5G-enabled electronics such as smartphones.

While 5G technology is progressively being commercialised worldwide, the analysis emphasises the primary focus remains on mid-band (sub-6 GHz) deployments. IDTechEx reports that less than 10% of commercialised or pre-commercialised 5G services as of now are based on the mmWave frequency band. This, it said, is partly due to the challenges faced by mmWave deployment, as higher frequency signals are prone to attenuation in the air and are highly susceptible to obstacles in accordance with the laws of physics.

In its report, IDTechEx stressed that cost-effectiveness is a fundamental requirement in AiP technology. It said achieving affordability involves utilising cost-effective packaging materials and processes, along with essential miniaturisation efforts for seamless integration into consumer devices such as smartphones. It also noted that meeting other prerequisites involves fabricating high-gain, broadband mmWave antenna arrays while simultaneously addressing electromagnetic compatibility, signal integrity and power integrity concerns.

Integration of quality factor passives into the package is said to ensure optimal performance, with reliability maintained through efficient thermal dissipation. Scalability further enables module design adaptation to diverse application needs.

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The analyst believes that while telcos can prioritise creating cost-effective networks by maximising coverage with minimal base stations, due to the shorter propagation distances of mmWave, approximately 10 times more mmWave stations are required compared with 4G low-mid band stations to cover the same area. As a result, national 5G coverage predominantly relies on low/mid-band and sub-6 GHz bands. IDTechEx anticipates that mmWave bands will mainly serve data-intensive hotspots such as crowded stadiums, supporting critical applications such as real-time streaming and uploading of high-definition videos.

Looking at current market conditions, the report suggests that identifying killer applications where mmWave technology can truly shine remains the greatest challenge for the industry at present. It said that while the concept of integrating 5G mmWave with virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR) for real-time remote gaming and work was initially promising, the market and the ecosystem for VR and AR devices have yet to mature sufficiently for 5G mmWave to capitalise on.

IDTechEx expects that to foster growth in the mmWave market, discovering compelling and financially rewarding business use cases will be crucial. It stressed that these cases must demonstrate how the advantages of 5G mmWave can justify the substantial investment required for deployment. IDTechEx predicts it will likely take another three to five years before witnessing a significant rise in such cases.

However, with continuous innovation and exploration, the industry anticipates that the moment for widespread adoption and highly profitable opportunities for mmWave technology will inevitably arrive. Looking ahead, 6G will face greater challenges compared with 5G mmWave in both technology development and market penetration, given its even higher frequencies.

Overcoming these hurdles will necessitate the development of innovative technological services, including advancements in packaging technologies for antennas to minimise signal transmission issues.

Additionally, there is a crucial need for stronger market identification of future applications to drive the adoption of 6G technologies. This entails not only identifying killer applications, but also fostering the ecosystem necessary for their successful implementation.

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