GaN and GaAs: 5G brings thriving business opportunities

An article by Ezgi Dogmus, in collaboration with Ahmed Ben Slimane, both from Yole Développement (Yole) and Elena Barbarini from System Plus Consulting for Microwave Journal – As a newcomer in the mature Silicon world, Gallium Nitride has been undoubtedly one of the groundbreaking technologies of the RF industry. Long considered as a very high end and high cost technology targeted at military applications, GaN made its entrance in Huawei’s fourth generation (4G) Long-Term Evolution (LTE) Remote Radiohead (RRH) base stations in mid-2010s. After that, GaN RF devices witnessed significant market adoption in commercial telecom infrastructure applications owing to their high power density and smaller form factor. Following the deployment of higher frequencies in sub-6 GHz 5G bands, GaN demonstrated properties that exceed the existing Silicon based LMDOS technology in terms of higher bandwidth and higher power density requirements.

With the emerging market opportunities, the following questions are being raised in the industry: What is the business outlook for the GaN RF market with the arrival of 5G? Which technology, GaN-on-Silicon Carbide (SiC) or GaN-on-Silicon, will more successfully grow its market? Which business models will dominate in the market? How will the GaN RF business evolve in view of the US-China tension, which is becoming more sensitive than ever?

National security has always been one of the top priorities for any country. Thus, a significant portion of the national budget is reserved for military expenditure. In the search for faster, better, and stronger defense and attack strategies, military applications prioritize high-performance systems. Hence, faster and higher quality data communication offering better military intelligence, or conversely jamming capability to create an advantage in a conflict have been crucial for military organizations. Over the couple of decades, investments and development of next-generation electronic systems resulted in deployment of solid-state technologies, especially in military radar, electronic warfare, and military communications. In the domain of military radar, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) systems replaced the old vacuum tubes, enabling several advantages such as larger detection area, faster scanning rates and higher spatial resolution as well as scalability and easier configuration of transceivers. In this context, using GaN-on-SiC in AESA technology helps to reduce the footprint and weight while increasing the system efficiency. As an alternative to LDMOS and GaAs, GaN achieves high power density and higher power added efficiency with high thermal conductivity while fitting in size-constrained spaces.

Over the last years, GaN deployment in military radar has become extremely popular with long running and high-budget projects in several countries. Following the USA, which is leading in GaN based radar implementation, Europe, Korea and China have also set up numerous projects in order to leverage GaN systems’ higher performance, scalability, and small size.

For this reason, GaN RF devices for military use is expected to increase rapidly and the value is expected to exceed US$1 billion by 2025 (See Figure 1)[1]. According to Yole Développement (Yole), the high number of GaN devices in AESA radar represents an interesting market opportunity for military foundries and contractors. While high cost is still considered as the main bottleneck for GaN, the defense industry expects cost reduction with the adoption of GaN in commercial markets, especially in the 4G and 5G telecom infrastructure segment. 

5G Telecom Infrastructure: GaN is setting the rules

In the dynamic 5G infrastructure market, there is a continuous race for more efficient antenna types. Switching technology from RRH to Active Antenna Systems (AAS) will transform the RF front ends from a low number of high-power RF lines to a large number of low-power RF lines. Meanwhile, deployment of higher frequencies in the sub-6 GHz as well as in the mm-wave regimes, push OEMs to look for new antenna technology platforms with larger bandwidth, higher efficiency, and better thermal management. In this context, GaN technology has become a serious competitor to LDMOS and GaAs in RF power applications, showing continuous performance and reliability improvement leading, potentially, to a lower cost at the system level. Following its penetration into the 4G LTE telecom infrastructure market, GaN-on-SiC is expected to maintain its strong position in 5G sub-6 GHz RRH implementations. However, in the emerging segment of 5G sub-6 GHz AAS – massive multiple input and multiple output (MIMO) deployments – the rivalry between GaN and LDMOS continues. While cost-efficient LDMOS technology carries on with noteworthy progress in high-frequency performance for sub-6 GHz, GaN-on-SiC offers remarkable bandwidth, PAE, and power output. Indeed, following the China Unicom and Telecom merger requiring >150 MHz bandwidth, GaN technology has been chosen for AAS. 5G telecom infrastructure is a very dynamic market requiring significant strategic decisions from OEMs, which could create new opportunities for GaN technology platforms… Full article