Market Insight

System-level RF solution at the forefront of Qualcomm’s increased RF front-end traction

January 08, 2018

Brad Shaffer Brad Shaffer Senior Analyst, Mobile Devices & Networks

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System-level RF solution at the forefront of Qualcomm’s increased RF front-end traction

Since the onset of LTE technology several years ago, one of the most critical attributes for the success of major smartphone RF component suppliers has been product portfolios that exhibit system-level expertise. For the most part, market leaders have developed product offerings that address all major componentry between the transceiver and the antenna. Over the past year, however, the prospect has risen that one supplier can address all necessary functionality in the smartphone between the modem and the antenna, offering added value to smartphone OEMs in the form of overall increased power efficiency and battery life.

At a pre-CES event today, Qualcomm announced it has continued to gain traction with its portfolio of RF front-end components with leading smartphone OEMs such as HTC, Sony Mobile, LG, Google, and Samsung. The company will provide next-generation premium tier smartphones with comprehensive modem-to-antenna RF front-end (RFFE) solution which should enable a faster time-to-market and reduce the overall development cost of the smartphones utilizing it.  Other leading RF suppliers have already promoted transceiver to antenna solutions such as Skyworks and Qorvo with SkyOne and RF Fusion, respectively. However, Qualcomm is the only supplier who is currently offering a modem to antenna solution optimized at a system level and through both hardware and software.

Qualcomm’s significant progress since RF360 Holdings

Qualcomm announced the official launch of its joint-venture (JV) with TDK about a year ago. Since then, RF360 Holdings has gained significant traction with leading global OEMs. Huawei, LG, Samsung, Vivo, Xiaomi and other OEMs have utilized a variety of RF360 content in their smartphone designs. Since the launch of the JV, Qualcomm’s presence in the RFFE has increased significantly. Prior to the JV the most successful Qualcomm RFFE products were the envelope tracking and antenna tuning solutions and these will continue to be critical aspects of the RFFE product portfolio moving forward as they provide a means for higher performance and power efficiency and longer battery lives. However, in the past year Qualcomm has announced additions to its RFFE product portfolio including Gallium Arsenide power amplifiers (GaAs PAs) and hybrid GaAs PAs as well power amplifiers with integrated duplexers (PAMiD) and various module capabilities. These were critical additions as Skyworks, Qorvo, and Broadcom Ltd. all have GaAs based power amplifier products in their portfolios combined with varying levels of integration with other componentry.

Smartphone OEMs have historically multi-sourced RF components for their smartphone designs, reducing their reliance on single suppliers while maintaining the incentive for cost competition among them. However, with a comprehensive modem to antenna product portfolio, Qualcomm is in a unique position. The increasing complexity of RFFE design with the onset of gigabit LTE and forthcoming 5G technology have increased the importance and value of a system-level approach to the RFFE which should enable RF component suppliers to win larger shares of a given phones’ RF bill of materials (BOM). While some OEM will continue to pursue multi-vendor RFFE designs, any traction gained by Qualcomm with their end-to-end comprehensive RF portfolio will add pressure to competing RF suppliers. However, these other RF component suppliers will not sit idle and will continue to field their own competitive portfolios. Increased traction of Qualcomm’s RF portfolio should also increase the competition for RF slots with other modem platforms including MediaTek, Samsung, HiSilicon, and Intel based smartphone designs.

Potential impact of end-to-end modem to antenna solutions on the RFFE competitive landscape

The end-to-end modem to antenna offering from Qualcomm has the potential to impact some RF component markets more than others. As components in the RF front-end continue to shift from discrete offerings to integrated components like power amplifiers with integrated duplexers (PAMiD), more advanced diversity receive modules, and more complex antenna switch modules, suppliers' ability to offer broad product portfolios with a variety of technologies to cater to OEMs evolving RFFE needs is more critical than ever. Market segments where revenue or unit share is highly concentrated have the greatest potential to be affected by a modem to antenna RF offering.

RF360 Holdings is one of only a handful of major bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filter suppliers in the world. Broadcom Ltd. (the result of Avago’s acquisition of Broadcom in 2016) is the largest supplier of BAW filters with its Film Bulk Acoustic Resonator (FBAR) technology. Qorvo is the other leading supplier of BAW filters globally, the two suppliers have historically accounted for more than 90% of BAW filter revenue. RF360 Holdings is the next biggest supplier and is expanding its manufacturing capacity which will enable it to better address the scale necessary to supply high-volume phones with RFFE components.

Qualcomm’s modem to antenna solution is an example of the kind of system-level expertise which will be required as smartphones move toward supporting 5G technologies around the middle of 2019.  5G designs using spectrum above 6GHz could use integrated RFFE solutions from the modem suppliers while the sub-6GHz designs will be more similar to the RFFE of gigabit LTE devices. Although it remains to be seen if Qualcomm can capture market share in specific areas such as BAW filters from its end-to-end capabilities, the traction it is gaining with leading OEMs is evident both in the increased number of components found in IHS Markit smartphone teardowns and from public announcements of its design wins.

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