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MEMS switch improves LTE performance

25 Mar 2014  | Neal Gompa

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MEMS switch on top of a US dime

MEMS switch on top of a US dime, which is 18mm across

With a high degree of isolation, linearity (degree to which the component does not affect the signal being carried) and a very low degree of loss across a chain of switches (which is critical for signal transference across the radio chain in mobile devices), RF switches based on GE's MEMS technology would be perfect for improving the base hardware that all cellular networks run on.

It also helps that it's quite small. (In the top image, the MEMS switch is shown on top of a US dime, which is 18mm across.) Low-throw-count switches (2-6 count) are comparable to the currently used technology in size (silicon on insulator, or SOI for short), but high-throw-count switches (12+) would be significantly smaller than any of its competitors. That enables smaller form factors and reduced costs on PCB construction.

The result of this improved technology is that the signal goes in and out of the device more cleanly. As GE mentions in its announcement, less distortion and leakage leads to a cleaner signal that can be processed and used with more advanced radio techniques like higher-order MIMO and non-contiguous carrier aggregation. It also allows for more sensitive radios to be used. This is critical for LTE-Advanced, as those technologies are the core of how it offers super-fast broadband connectivity.

Now, MEMS has been around for a long time. The benefits of MEMS switches are not new. However, what is new is GE's production process involving a metal alloy that makes it possible to use it in low-power environments like smartphones as well as higher-power environments like cell towers. This "secret sauce," as GE Ventures' Chris Giovanniello called it, is what makes it usable for these environments. Giovanniello further noted that since GE does not participate in the wireless industry, it will be looking to license out its technology to companies that do (such as network gear and smartphone vendors) to enable wide adoption of "GE Metal MEMS" RF switches.

No one has announced any partnerships to use the technology yet, but it wouldn't be surprising if the next generation of LTE-Advanced network gear and devices used the technology to enable much better performance in the network.

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