Siemens + Sarokal > 5G. And, what’s 5G?

May 2, 2018 | Hot Topics

A while ago, Siemens announced that its Mentor Graphic business was buying Sarokal, makers of software and hardware used in developing and testing 4G and 5G telecomms infrastructure. I didn’t know what that meant and so the good folks at Mentor gave me a crash course in 5G, what it is and why it matters — and here’s what I learned. Bottom line: it’s much, much bigger than deciding on your next cell phone.

[Any mistakes here are mine — they are true experts and I was taking notes like crazy, but this is still far outside this naval architect’s wheelhouse.]

Most of us have fourth-generation, 4G, wireless, which can buckle under the loads we’re placing on it: we want to stream movies, play games, send text messages and call one another. The boom in data usage, demand for ever faster speeds and greater bandwidth all played into the development of the next generation, 5G. What’s so special about 5G? The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, which oversees telecommunications technology across the world, defines 5G as having a 12GB/second minimum peak data rate for downloads and an uplink peak data rate of 10GB/second, with maximum latency set at 4 milliseconds. That could be 50 times faster than current speeds. Yow. Why do we need that? So you can play Pokemon Go more naturally, but mostly to support the Internet of Things. Speed, latency and uptime are paramount if you’re relying on that data stream to help you perform surgery remotely or tell you if something is wrong in your production process. 5G will also be the network of choice for self-driving cars, homes, airplanes, and many other objects, adding massively to the number of connected devices and to the density of those devices in a given area. If you’ve ever failed to send a text message from a football stadium because a tower was overloaded, you get the density problem. And that’s simply not going to be acceptable for self-driving cars on a crowded highway.

These requirements for speed and bandwidth mean that the infrastructure for 5G will look very different from 4G. 4G uses big, high-power cell towers to radiate signals out to receivers. 5G signals will be transmitted over many shorter hops via a larger number of unobtrusive cell stations on buildings and other infrastructure. 5G needs these small cells, closer together because the wave spectrum it uses to generate high speeds can only travel over short distances. Physics: the lower-frequency spectrum can go greater distances but is slower and has lower capacity than millimeter wave the 5G will use.

This all means that a completely new generation of gear is required for the 5G network. Exactly how much is still under debate as standards setters look at ways that wireless network operators might use existing infrastructure to help them bridge from 4G to 5G. Even so, hardware suppliers are developing new network radios to transmit signals, receivers that amplify the signals, and wireless modems/cellphones and other devices that are the end-point receivers of those signals.

Ultimately, true 5G really does mean a totally new generation of hardware and that’s where Sarokal and Mentor Graphics come into play. In many cases, there’s no way to build physical prototypes of this equipment–especially as the standards governing their use won’t be finished for a while–so virtual testing (aka emulation in Mentor’s world) is the only answer. Sarokal makes physical and software-based test solutions that that are integral to the development of these radios, systems and system components like chips. Typical customers include chipset makers, equipment manufacturers that connect centralized gear to remote towers in 4G networks and transmitters to receivers in 5G, as well as the telecom operators themselves to design, test and verify network devices. Mentor plans to integrate Sarokal’s software into its broader Veloce emulation platform.

A couple of other fascinating tidbits:

  • We’re used to buying our wireless service from legacy provides, many of which are old-line telcos. 5G is changing that, since no wires or massive towers are required. Mentor tells me that it’s seeing significant interest in Sarokal’s 5G-related technologies from companies it’s never dealt with before.
  • Given how big 5G is, and how much technology change its adoption implies, Sarokal doesn’t have a lot of competition. That surprised me, since the coming of 5G isn’t new news to anyone — and the use of emulation is well-established in this industry. Mentor’s Jean-Marie Brunet told me that there are a couple of adjacent providers, but no one with the specific expertise Sarokal brings.
  • Many early wireless concepts failed because there were no/few standards. A 2G cellphone only worked in one or a few countries. That’s incredibly frustrating and, with autonomous vehicles, dangerous. The 5G standards body is 3GPP, with members from all over the world, which aims to stop all of that nonsense. But it’s hard and threatens many entrenched players, which is why it all takes so long.
  • It’s not part of Mentor’s business plan at this point, but: You know the guy/gal who comes to hook up your cable? The line testers they use? Similar 5G devices may someday have Mentor/Sarokal tech, checking to ensure that the download, uplink and latency standards are met.

When Siemens announced the Sarokal acquisition, Siemens PLM CEO Tony Hemmelgarn said that it reinforced the company’s commitment to EDA and the integrated circuits industry. That’s true but this also a play in support of many other initiatives within Siemens, targeted at industries where 5G will become increasingly important. Telecommunications. IoT. Offshore oil/gas and wind. Smart homes. Cloud robotics. Medical monitoring. Defense systems. Autonomous vehicles.

Industry after industry will be adjusting to 5G over the next 5-6 years, as chipmakers then box-makers then phone-makers, auto companies and others roll out 5G-compliant products. And Sarokal and Mentor and Siemens aim to be right in the middle of it all.