4G v 5G wireless printed circuit board (PCB) challenges and opportunities

By Staff

With the dawn of 5G and the various associated 5G benefits manufacturers hope to achieve with broader bandwidth and less latency, brings changes in hardware associate with 5G networks.

4G wireless base station systems have a baseband unit, radio remote unit and an antenna. 4G baseband units and radio remote units connect by fiber optics, while radio remote units and antenna are joined by copper wire.

4G radio remote units then convert signals for analog frequency into digital, in addition to providing signal filtering and amplification. The 4G baseband unit is key for advanced digital processing.

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Meanwhile, to achieve the promises of 5G (enhanced broadband and lower latency), 5G baseband units are divided into centralized and distributed units.

5G then moves some functions for 5G baseband units to distributed units. This reduces fronthaul data bandwidth needs. Additionally, portions of core 5 network functions are positioned closer to end users to help reduce latency.

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5G is further supported by mobile edge computing facilities built alongside centralized broadband control units. Add to this, massive multiple-input, multiple-output (an extension of MIMO) technology targeting transmitters and receivers and grouping together antennas – to enhance throughput and spectrum efficiency.

4G v 5G Antennas and PCB demand

More base stations will need to be deployed for 5G compared to 4G usage. This is because 5G, although it has higher frequencies at a higher frequency spectrum, 5G has smaller coverage compared to 4G’s lower spectrum.

Essentially, more 5G base stations are required for the same coverage as 4G.

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5G networks will also raise technical standards for printed circuit board suppliers, electronics design houses, and contract electronics manufacturers to achieve higher frequencies and densities required by 5G networks, faster speeds, understanding of advanced materials and their adoption — all supported by advanced design capabilities.

Early on, these capabilities in the outsourcing marketplace will be (short term) true differentiators for contact electronics solutions providers as well as impacting ASP per unit and overall margin growth. Readers can locate and contact contract electronics solutions providers in our global EMS directory here.

For example, heat management is key for designing and selecting PCB materials, especially given high power consumption and heat generated by antennas. Many in industry acknowledge FR-4 (or FR4) glass-reinforced epoxy laminate material, common when manufacturing printed circuit boards is likely to be replaced by PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene – commonly referred to as Teflon), ceramics, or hydrocarbon/glass materials.

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Should cost analysis for and margins for PCB suppliers should see improvements since pricing for regular PCB and high-speed, high-frequency PCB is considerably different. 5G-intended PCB pricing in the supply chain could drop as adoption and volume deployment in the field increases.

Another important note on PCB design and volume relative to demand for 5G networks is the number of antennas needed for active antenna units amounting to 128 to 192 units for 5G v 64 to 96 used in 4G units, according to the research team at investment bank HSBC Qianhai Securities.

The resulting larger sized active antenna box build pcb assembly (PCBA) units for 5G also supports the need for more highly evolved PCB design.

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Circuit board use cases/layers by type (chart) w/ market opportunity assumptions

The printed circuit board marketplace is robust. Buyers can find vendors offering single- and double-layer boards, printed wire boards (PWB) with four, sixteen, eighteen layers, and more. Plus, high density interconnect (HDI) and flexible printed circuits (FPC) options.

Regardless of PCB or PWB type, circuit boards are found in nearly every electronics market sector. While this article focuses on wireless hardware equipment and related PCBs, other industries included are displayed in chart below.

To better understand the graph, realize adoption of PCB application type is noted by ‘x’, where industry / layer type noted by ‘x’ represents a lower adoption rate than ‘xxxxx’.

HSBC also estimates opportunity for 5G hardware antennas systems deployed in China, for example, will increase 6x near-term against the following assumptions:

  • 5G active antenna units adopt one more layer of PCB attached to the antenna element, in addition to the one layer PCB used in radio remote units which are used to integrate radio frequencies, amplifiers, and digital/analog signal conversion;
  • PCB selling prices increase 20% over 4G antenna systems;
  • 5G base stations require 3 active antenna units and radio remote units to cover three sectors; and
  • Number of 5G base stations will reach a 20% increase compared with 4G base stations.


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