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11 June 2014

Focus of mobile RF industry shifting from PAs to filters

In the ‘Global and China RF Industry Report, 2013-2014’, market analayst firm Research In China notes that the biggest event in the RF industry in 2014 is RF Micro Devices’ ‘takeover’ of Triquint Semiconductor.

Triquint suffered consecutive losses in 2012 and 2013. In first-quarter 2014, its revenue fell by 3.6% year-on-year, and its operating margin was negative 11.3% (following negative 3.2 % the prior quarter and negative 18.8% a year previously). Losses were mainly attributed to the aggressive capacity expansion (as much as seven manufacturing centers) before 2011 and excessive expectations. Additionally, Triquint showed a serious dependence on large customers (in particular, 57% of its revenue came from Apple).

In contrast, RFMD is just exiting its predicament. In its early years, RFMD placed undue reliance on its client Nokia, says the report, but it witnessed poor performance in 2011-2012 due to the impact of Nokia. However, RFMD recovered in 2013 and its operating revenue rose substantially. RFMD was attracted by Triquint’s bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filter technology, summarizes the report.

The focus of the mobile RF industry has been shifting from power amplifiers (PAs) to filters, the report notes. In the 4G era, the most valuable part of a mobile RF system is the filter (especially BAW) rather than the PA. The biggest difference between 4G and 3G lies in BAW, which is an essential part for 4G. A regional LTE phone needs a BAW filter valued at $1.25, a SAW filter worth $2.25, and a PA that only costs $1.75. As for a global roaming LTE phone, a SAW worth $3, a BAW worth $3.50 and a PA worth $2 are required.

The report also reckons that Qualcomm’s RF360 CMOS PA design (announced in early 2013) is changing the entire mobile RF industry in a revolutionary way, as the gallium arsenide (GaAs) PA is facing a fierce attack from CMOS PA. The RF360 design subverts the opinion that CMOS PAs can only be used on low-end phones. Specifically for CMOS PAs, Qualcomm has designed the QFE1100, which is a front-end module involved with envelope tracking technology. QFE1100 can help CMOS PAs to improve thermal efficiency, reduce heat by 30% and cut power consumption by 20%, it is said.

ZTE’s flagship mobile phone Grand S II LTE uses Qualcomm’s CMOS PAs - QFE2320 and QFE2340 - for the first time. The combination of QFE2320 and QFE2340 can cover all major cellular modes, including LTE TDD/FDD, WCDMA/HSPA +, CDMA 1x, TD-SCDMA and GSM/EDGE, with the RF band 700-2700MHz. Qualcomm has basically monopolized the smartphone modem and CPU markets, and may dominate the PA field, reckons the report. However, mobile phone vendors will still cooperate with GaAs PA suppliers in order to ensure their equal status, it concludes.

Tags: GaAs PA CMOS PAs BAW filter

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