ITF: Reconfigurable radios and scaled CMOS for a true mobile life

In an exclusive series of blogs, imec’s science writers report from the International Technology Forum (ITF) in Brussels. This year, ITF’s theme was “It’s a changing world. Let’s make a sustainable change together”. More info:

At the recent mobile world congress (MWC) the newest models of smartphones and tablets were showcased. Most probably, you too are the proud owner of a smartphone and tablet. The next big thing according to Charlotte Soens, manager mm-wave communication program at imec, is that people will start using these mobile devices to watch high-quality photos and videos, stored in the cloud. First smartphones with integrated projectors are appearing, so it won’t be long before we will project our holiday videos or professional marketing videos at home or in the office, using our smartphones.

However, this scenario implies huge technological challenges for services, networks and wireless devices. “Research focuses on enabling the scenario in which the user can access the gigabytes of photo and video material in an instantaneous way, wherever the user may be. Moreover, we have to achieve this at low cost and without significantly impacting the battery lifetime, “ says Charlotte Soens.

But let first focus on how this scenario will be put in practice. “Videos and photos are stored in the cloud. When you are outdoors, you will rely on wireless technology such as LTE advanced to stream videos immediatly to your tablet. When you go indoors, you will connect to a small domestic cell with a gigabit per second connection, through for example IEEE802.11ac or IEEE802.11ad,” explains Soens.

An important technology enabling this scenario is a multistandard radio. “You need a tablet or smartphone that can support e.g. LTE and WiFi-like standards. And that’s exactly what imec is working on: reconfigurable radio architectures that can support connectivity standards, cellular standards and broadcasting standards, “ says Soens. “The challenge is to do develop such a radio module with a low power consumption and at a low cost.”

The user will also demand for very high data rates. Knowing that the spectrum below 10GHz is really crowded, it seems obvious to turn to higher frequency bands such as the unlicensed band around 60GHz. However, developing a low-cost compact 60GHz radio for mobile consumer devices is a real technological challenge. “To achieve a low-cost solution, we work with digital CMOS. But it is very difficult to the good performance at mm-wave out of digital CMOS. Especially if you want to go for a low power consumption. It’s certainly not business as usual,” states Soens. But that it’s possible demonstrates the latest achievement of imec researchers: a 7Gbps 60GHz transceiver implemented in 40nm low-power digital CMOS targeting low-cost volume production.

Els Parton, Scientific editor imec


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