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[Non-memory Korea: 2] Korean chipmakers to seize nonmemory opportunities in 5G era

Explosive growth in data traffic in 5G era raises demand for chipsets such as radio frequency transceivers, power amplifiers, low-power supply modulators

With South Korea launching the world’s first commercial fifth-generation telecom network last week, the nation’s semiconductor industry is seeking opportunities in the emerging 5G chipset market in an effort to overcome sluggish demand for memory chips.

As Korea’s economy has been heavily reliant on memory exports for the past 35 years, the current down cycle is making a critical dent in the export-driven economy, raising calls for new high-tech export goods to reduce the overdependence on memory products like DRAMs.

Therefore, the launch of the new generation of telecommunications services is timely because it provides Korean chipmakers with both opportunities and challenges to create a new market related to 5G chipsets in the nonmemory sector.

Samsung Electronics, which has just started to mass produce the world’s first 5G smartphones, has expressed confidence in becoming a leader in 5G-related mobile communications technologies as one of the few that can offer end-to-end solutions for the 5G network.

The Korean tech giant has introduced the first Exynos 5G modem chipset that supports virtually all networks from 2G to 5G. In addition, the company has announced mass production of 5G radio frequency transceivers and low-power supply modulator chips that are key to transmitting massive data among mobile devices. 


“In the 5G era, chips that help smooth transmission and accurate processing of data will play a central role in a variety of devices,” an industry insider said. “While it is true that demand for memory chips will continue rising to store an increasing amount of data in the new telecom era, the need and importance of such ‘brain’ and ‘booster’ chips will be far greater.”

Another major change with the 5G network is that edge-computing practices will widely take place, referring to how data is generated at the edges of the main network, not in the centralized data processing warehouse.

“With 5G, an individual user with a 5G mobile device will serve as an independent part of a network unit that requires the person’s own data processing chip and accelerator,” said a US-based system-on-chip company.

“System chips like the field-programmable gate array, known as the versatile FPGA, which can adaptively change to characteristics of various applications will see increasing demand.”

For data centers and server businesses, the need for chips with high capabilities of data processing and analysis at 5G network speeds is on the rise.

Intel -- Samsung’s archrival in the nonmemory industry -- is eyeing the 5G market as well. The US-based tech mogul has unveiled a set of solutions for 5G-powered data centers, including system-on-chips and memory solutions.

Intel’s next-generation central processing unit for servers, dubbed Gen.2 Intel Xeon Scalable, is a CPU optimized for big data analysis and artificial intelligence. It added an AI accelerator named “Deep Learning Boost” to the new CPU in order to improve the accuracy of image sensing by 3.4 times, text analyzing by 2.4 times and video analyzing by 3.26 times compared to products by its competitors.

“5G could be a huge opportunity for Korean chipmakers like Samsung and SK hynix, if they decide to take on the market, because they are ahead of their rivals in terms of 5G infrastructure,” said a senior official at a foreign chip business.

“In addition to the 5G chipsets, Samsung could come up with better mobile application processors, in an area which I even think Samsung has already trumped Qualcomm.”

By Song Su-hyun (