Material Gains

How Do We Power 5G Networks?

5G has great potential, but brings power challenges at the infrastructure and board levels.

5G network capacity is predicted to increase as much as 1000-fold by 2030. That’s a stunning increase that can be attributed to effects such as our digital lifestyles and digital business transformation. Clearly, our dependence on online services that are available anytime, anywhere and at full speed shows no sign of abating. The effect on global energy demand could be even more stunning. The information & communications technology (ICT) industry currently consumes about 4% of the world’s electricity, and this could increase to an amazing 20% with the growth of 5G networks. In absolute terms, that’s equivalent to 150 quadrillion BTU per year.

Of course, 5G is huge, in scope as well as deployment. It covers low frequency bands, up to about 1GHz, although the main benefits of 5G are its ability to carry richer services that by their nature require faster data rates. These will push the limits of Frequency Range 1 (FR1) as defined by 5G standards, up to 6GHz in the FR1 range, and even higher in FR2 that extends into the millimeter-wave bands at 60-70GHz and even beyond. While services in the FR1 bands can support data rates of about 1-2Gbit/s, the higher bands are needed to support multi-gigabit data rates and latency of less than a few milliseconds.

At the highest frequencies, however, signaling range is considerably reduced. Each cell can only cover a small area. Weather conditions and other atmospheric effects can also affect range and the performance of the air interface. Many cells are needed to extend coverage, which will tend to restrict the fastest, most intuitive and high-value services to metropolitan areas. So, although we can expect to download at speeds of 10Gbit/s and faster – enough to allow downloading a complete high-definition movie in a few seconds – network deployment costs are high and extending coverage to reach rural areas is challenging.

There is great potential for delivering 5G services through satellites in low-earth orbits (LEO). After Starlink and similar satellite delivery platforms for Internet services have already shown the way, direct satellite delivery of 5G services is a logical step. Because access to space is now more affordable than ever, it is not difficult to foresee service providers extending their infrastructures into the sky as 5G continues to develop toward reaching its full potential.

Companies are already looking at the prospects for delivering services to connected vehicles, such as streaming entertainments, location-based services and telematics, as well as autonomous driving. Satellites could also hold the key to bringing 5G to rural and remote areas. 5G handsets with satellite transceivers are on the market now. It’s fascinating to contemplate the opportunities for satellite-based 5G to cover inevitable shortcomings in ground-based delivery.

Ground-based infrastructure will be needed for the fastest 5G services, considering the natural physical limitations on range at high frequencies. Many small cells are needed, in conjunction with larger base stations. While the efficiency of 5G systems is unquestionably greater than earlier networks, our insatiable demand for richer services, instant responses and easy access for a growing number of subscribers is continuing to drive up demands for energy and power. 5G infrastructure is reckoned to need as much as four or five times as much power as 4G. Here’s another startling statistic; a 5G base station is reckoned to consume more power than 70 households. Although we are more energy conscious than ever, engineering new ways to use this precious commodity more carefully, we are also using more than ever as our nature drives us to experience more richly and intensely accomplish more tasks in less time.

While there are obvious difficulties associated with generating the power to run 5G infrastructures in an environmentally acceptable way, managing power at the board level also brings many challenges. In particular, thermal management begins to demand careful attention at higher operating frequencies. This is calling for innovative design and new technologies throughout the hardware, all the way to the PCBs at the heart of each system. Ventec and other material suppliers are working hard in this area to create substrate materials that blend properties such as minimal signal-strength losses with high thermal conductivity. New ceramic-filled hydrocarbon materials are emerging that combine extremely low losses with about six times the thermal conductivity of ordinary FR-4 materials.

Performance improvements made possible by forthcoming advanced substrate materials show how our industry is once again surpassing perceived barriers through a dual strategy of reducing the magnitude of the challenge while at the same increasing our ability to combat its effects. In this case, low-loss materials are reducing the thermal demands on the substrate, while their increased thermal conductivity promotes extraction of the heat present to preserve the electronics at the heart of the system. We can hope to avoid the prospect of expensive and even more power-hungry active cooling systems for 5G base station electronics and – even less acceptable – more bulky and power-hungry 5G handsets and edge computing systems.Article ending bug

Alun Morgan is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (; Learn more about thermal management of hybrid PCBs in this special PCEA webinar presented by Ventec and available on the PCEA YouTube channel (