Filter Technology Selection Crucial to RFFE Performance as 5G Expands Beyond Mobile

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By David McQueen | 4Q 2021 | IN-6378

With the ongoing growth of 5G, it is essential that the frequencies 5G and other next generation technologies use are filtered in an effective manner. While SAW technology has mainly provided that feature, the new BAW radio frequency filter offers a stronger stance in the market.

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Qualcomm Announces New RF Filter Technology to Enable Next Generation 5G and Wi-Fi Solutions


Qualcomm’s recent announcement of its ultraBAW Radio Frequency (RF) filter technology extends its radio-frequency portfolio for 5G and Wi-Fi segments for bands up to 7 GHz, building on its previously announced ultraSAW technology for sub-3 GHz. The announcement highlights the growing importance of filters in the design and development of the next generation of connected devices, as 5G is increasingly leveraged over a wide range of frequency bands up to 6 GHz and beyond in the future. Choosing the right filter modules will be essential in bringing 5G and next generation Wi-Fi to multiple product verticals including mobile, automotive, laptops, tablets, fixed wireless access (FWA), and IoT.

Selection of 5G Filter Technology Key to Minimizing Complexity and Cost


The adoption of 5G continues to thrive in the mobile devices market and is expected to become more diverse and expand exponentially across all types and price tiers. However, device democratization of the 5G experience will be constrained not just by the modem and application processor, but by the Radio Frequency Front-End (RFFE). In turn, within the RF, it is the filters that will be the most challenging and essential area to address fully as the market moves to 5G and with this support for high frequency spectrums. Filters have been an integral part of mobile devices and the sheer numbers now needed in a 5G device has grown exponentially while pressure to improve performance, provide thermal efficiency, and reduce the overall die area of the chipset have become ever more important to reduce the cost and ensure integrity of the signal and communication reliability.

Filters are needed specifically to unlock the high bandwidths available in 5G and next generation Wi-Fi co-integration. While they need to extend performance into higher frequencies carrying these technologies, while also working across multiple frequency bands and bandwidths, they must remain low cost and small enough so as not to impact on overall device form factor. Other key performance indicators (KPIs) such as thermal performance, efficient packaging, and integration with the system design are all crucial aspects that need to be addressed to make sure that the correct choice of filter technology is selected.

A variety of filters are available to the market, notably acoustic-based piezoelectric filter technologies such as Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) and Bulk Acoustic Wave (BAW), each of which have their strengths in distinct frequency bands and come with varying levels of complexity and costs. Moreover, to determine the correct selection of these competing filter technologies, they need to be assessed across a set of crucial KPIs, which includes thermal performance, frequency spectrum support, ability to integrate with other components and systems, complexity and implementation costs, spectral performance, and packaging footprint.

The SAW family of filter technologies, which generally operate at lower frequencies and have a simpler manufacturing process, are supplied by companies such as Qorvo, Skyworks, Murata, and Qualcomm. Additional SAW technologies such as thermo-compensated SAW (TC-SAW) and thin film SAW (TF-SAW), as well as piezoelectric-based SAW (ultraSAW), provide an uptick in performance over standard SAW through addressing more challenging bands and having lower insertion losses. However, these technologies are often more complex to build which means they are more costly than traditional SAW filters for an equal die size.

In contrast, BAW filters work most effectively at higher frequencies and the market is led by companies such as Broadcom, Murata, Skyworks, Qorvo, and Qualcomm. Included in the BAW family are Film Bulk Acoustic Resonators (FBAR), other BAW technologies based on electromechanical coupling materials such as XBAW and XBAR, and piezoelectric-based BAW such as ultraBAW, as announced by Qualcomm. Each technology enables a level of improved performance at higher frequencies, although some are at an increased cost owing to differences in the manufacturing process.

The ability to pack so many filters into a 5G device becomes a challenge as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) attempt to strike a balance between achieving the best gain and power consumption against the use of these differing, competing filter technologies. At the same time, they need to implement a technology that allows integration as best as possible across the desired spectrum while reducing device Stock-Keeping Unit (SKU) counts.

5G's High Frequency Bands Stimulates a Growing Need for Higher Performance Filters


The relative strengths and weaknesses for each of the filter technologies shows that there is no one size fits all. This leads to debate over which is the one best technology that holds a major competitive advantage, and therefore, which filter vendors will ultimately lead the market. At present, the mobile handset market is dominated by SAW filters. However, as the market moves to adopt the higher frequencies of 5G—coupled with a growing need for precise, higher performance filters—there is a strong shift towards the use of BAW technologies, notably because SAW will not perform as well or scale in higher bandwidths.

However, it is worth noting that piezoelectric-based filters such as Qualcomm’s ultraSAW and ultraBAW technologies have some additional advantages compared to the alternatives thanks to their ability to integrate better with other RFFE components such as power amplifiers, duplexers, antenna switches, diversity modules, Wi-Fi, and GNSS extractors, as well as other discrete components. This quality enables these technologies to offer more integrated RF system designs with improved performance and a reduced silicon footprint.

The ongoing move towards supporting 5G higher frequency bands also requires a stark improvement in filter thermal performance to cope with the much higher power needed in these bands. With such a growing number of filters now needed in devices, they generate a lot of heat, and their lifespan will be compromised if they have not got the requisite thermal performance. Similarly, the co-existence with Wi-Fi, although not new to the industry, now also becomes more complex when transiting to higher frequencies, notably with the move to the ultrawide bands of Wi-Fi 6 and 6e. Here again, filters such ultraSAW and ultraBAW have better inherent thermal efficiency thanks to their piezoelectric nature as opposed to alternative technologies using micromechanical designs.

The shift to 5G has stimulated a growing need for higher performance filters meaning that BAW looks to be the most likely beneficiary. However, with more competition expected from the introduction of new players and filter technologies, the expanding filter market is far from settled with those that can create an end-to-end design will win out in terms of performance, cost, and industry support. Ideally, all 5G filter technologies not only have to minimize the inherent complexity in the RF but also have a desire to expand their addressable markets and push towards a greater level of democratization. Such an approach will generate greater economies of scale, which will allow for better price points. In turn, the ultimate aim of having widespread use of a technology will ensure that many other use cases and 5G applications can be addressed. Such a strategy will offer the industry better filter solutions versus those technologies that are focused on a specific part of the market or application, which will again help reduce overall costs.



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