Ericsson, IBM unveil breakthrough 28 GHz phased-array integrated circuit

It’s not every day you hear of a new breakthrough coming out of a partnership between Ericsson and IBM, but the two are touting a new silicon-based millimeter-wave phased-array integrated circuit (IC) at 28 GHz that could be used in future 5G base stations.

The two companies have been collaborating for more than two years, combining IBM’s expertise in highly integrated phased-array mmWave IC and antenna-in-a-package solutions and Ericsson’s know-how in circuit and system design for mobile communications. Not only were they able to build the module with four monolithic integrated circuits and 64 dual-polarized antennas, but they also managed to get the size down to what amounts to about half the size of a typical smartphone.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is a major advance in terms of the complexity and performance that phased array have achieved at these frequencies,” Alberto Valdes-Garcia, manager of Radio Frequency Circuits and Systems at IBM Research, told FierceWirelessTech. The idea is to use it in future base stations, which will need to be small enough to fit in places like coffee shops and shopping malls—spaces where there’s a need to support a large amount of data and usage at the same time, he said.

The phased-array design supports beam-steering resolution of less than 1.4 degrees for high-precision pointing of the beam toward users.

While wireless operators and vendors like Ericsson and Nokia have been conducting trials with millimeter wave, IBM Research has been working in the space for many years, pioneering the first monolithic mmWave radio in 2006. Last year, IBM unveiled a fully integrated 60 GHz CMOS transceiver designed to operate in a manner similar to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

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5G standards are still being developed and spectrum allocations for 5G are still being made around the world, but Valdes-Garcia said advancements in hardware can’t wait for the standards to be decided, so with the guidance of Ericsson, IBM set out to show the world that this was possible and to provide motivation for the next generation of technology.

Some of the use cases and applications discussed for 5G include human-machine interaction, virtual reality, smart home devices and connected cars. Users are expected to be able to download full-length HD movies in seconds, get uninterrupted live streaming in dense environments like sports or concert venues and experience fully immersive virtual reality.

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An Ericsson spokesperson said the solution it developed with IBM is now ready to be integrated into field trial equipment, currently under construction. The actual field trials with this equipment will start somewhat later, and the spokesperson didn’t identify potential trial partners. U.S. operators, most notably Verizon, are involved with tests and/or trials at 28 GHz.   

A paper describing the IBM Research and Ericsson team’s work, “A 28 GHz 32-Element Phased-Array Transceiver IC with Concurrent Dual Polarized Beams and 1.4 Degree Beam-Steering Resolution for 5G Communications,” is being presented today (Feb. 7) at the 2017 International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.