Qualcomm JV to Spark Mobile Industry Path Towards RFFE Integration

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By David McQueen | 1Q 2017 | IN-4443

As the mobile communications industry moves fast toward higher speed, low latency, and ultra-reliable connections, new technologies are emerging as fundamental building blocks for enabling networks, commonly called LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro. The addition of multiple carrier aggregation (CA) at both the downlink and uplink levels, MIMO, antenna tuning, and envelope tracking brings with it antenna diversity, which means that the RF system must accommodate an increasing number of front-end components. LTE spectrum fragmentation is putting even more constraints on the RF real estate. If the industry does not act quickly and provide some much-needed rationalization and integration at the RF front end (RFFE), then it faces some serious challenges over the coming years.

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Qualcomm and TDK Complete Tie-Up


The completion of a joint venture between Qualcomm and TDK—under the name RF360 Holdings Singapore PTE. Ltd (RF360 Holdings)—was finalized recently. It will enable Qualcomm's RFFE Business Unit to deliver RFFE modules and RF filters into fully integrated systems for mobile devices and other business segments, such as Internet of Things (IoT), automotive applications, and connected computing.

RF360 Holdings will have a set of filters and filter technologies to support the wide range of frequency bands being deployed in networks across the globe and will enable the delivery of RFFE modules from Qualcomm. In addition, the tie-up allows Qualcomm, in tandem with the newly formed RF360 Holdings, to design and supply products with end-to-end performance and global scale from the modem/transceiver all the way to the antenna in a fully integrated system.

RF Presents a Huge Challenge


The mobile industry’s move to LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro—with up to five times CA at the downlink and up to three times carrier aggregation at the uplink—and 4x4 MIMO are proving to be a market burden as the demands for RF increase exponentially. This demand is sure to amplify further as the industry moves to 5G networks where massive MIMO, beamforming, and support for additional bands are fundamental requirements.

To put this demand into context, as an example, ABI Research’s teardown service indicates that the Apple iPhone 7 has around 14 different components relating to the RFFE from about five different suppliers. Compare this to a smartphone on the market that has a more complex 2CA/3CA set of combinations, such as the HTC 10, which has more than 40 components listed that relate to the RFFE from around 10 different suppliers.

While this is just an example to prove a point, it does emphasize the potential size of the RF task laid at the feet of the OEMs, which can only get worse as higher order CA is expected to penetrate the smartphone market further, hampering both industrial design and power management. Indeed, most smartphone vendors are currently struggling to cope with this substantial increase in RF burden as related components needs to be meticulously placed within the PCB to minimize interferences and optimize RF power consumption without compromising overall design of the device. For the time being, only a handful of OEMS, including Apple and Samsung, appear to be handling this issue more effectively, even if just on a case-by-case basis.

Greater RF Collaboration and Integration Expected


As the baseband market is becoming increasingly commoditized, so is the RF component that is being challenged and is the next point of differentiation under scrutiny, with integration of the RF business to the fore. The mobile industry is on the cusp of transitioning to advanced connectivities, and will find itself in all kinds of problems unless it takes these issues seriously and starts the drive toward integration at the RFFE level. Fundamentally, it is for the RF business to create more integrated solutions to help aid this transition, while also providing miniaturization and performance. At the forefront of this assertion is the Qualcomm-TDK tie-up, which marks the first step toward realizing these ambitions.

As such, ABI Research expects more collaboration and targeted integration to happen in the RF industry over the next 12 months to help overcome this challenge to the mobile communications industry. Moreover, the market needs to have made some significant progress in creating these integrated, packaged solutions before 5G comes on line, which will undoubtedly have the capacity to increase the level of RF complexity even further.


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