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23 September 2019

Qualcomm consolidates RF position, taking full control of RF360

Qualcomm has taken full control of RF360 Holdings, which it set up in 2017 as a $3bn joint venture with TDK of Japan. In buying out its partner, the chip vendor says it is demonstrating how successful RF360 has been so far. Full control will give it enhanced ability to fill gaps in its end-to-end 5G device chip platform, and if it can provide as many components as possible, this can offset the pressures on the addressable market for its core processor/modem offerings.

TDK Electronics’ remaining interest in the joint venture was valued at $1.15bn in August 2019. The total purchase price, including the initial investment, payments to TDK based on sales by the joint venture, and development obligations, will be about $3.1bn.

The TDK venture helped Qualcomm to build on, and expand, the work it had previously done to move into the RF front end (RFFE) space and so address a larger number of elements in a cellular device. The joint venture was named after its first major product in that area, also called RF360. At the time of its formation, CEO Steve Mollenkopf said the JV would “transform us from a strong niche player to a formidable challenger with all the necessary IP blocks” in RF front ends.

The RFFE is the group of components which transmits and receives signals between the radio transceiver and the antennas, and includes signal filters, power amplifiers and antenna switches. This faces a challenging task in LTE, where there are so many band/mode (TDD/FDD) combinations being deployed on a large scale basis, and many niche ones. In 5G, the challenge can be expected to get even tougher.

In particular, the TDK relationship brought it a range of filters which have enabled it to support a wide range of spectrum bands, from sub-GHz to millimeter wave, and to offer an end-to-end solution, integrated from modem to antenna.

This is the Snapdragon 5G Modem-RF System, which integrates power amplifiers, filters, multiplexers, antenna tuning, low noise amplifiers, switching and envelope tracking.

Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm, has used the prospect of 5G to pursue a familiar Qualcomm theme – the need to integrate as many components as tightly as possible, in order to reduce cost, size and power consumption of a device, and maximize performance. In 5G, it will very difficult to build a radio platform which does not have the front end fully integrated because of the number of bands that will be supported, he argues. He believes about 1,000 band combinations are possible in 4G (which has 49 official spectrum bands) and that figure will be about 10,000 in 5G, making the current model of global band harmonization redundant.

Qualcomm said the acquisition of TDK’s share was the final step in bringing more than 20 years of expertise in RFFE filtering inhouse, with products spanning all the main RFFE filter technologies including surface acoustic wave (SAW), temperature-compensated SAW (TC-SAW), thin film SAW and bulk acoustic wave (BAW). The end result is a fully integrated solution combining these filters with Qualcomm components including power amplifiers, envelope tracking and switches (the last of these categories enhanced in 2015 by the acquisition of Antenna Tuning). At the time of the JV being announced, TDK was shipping over 25m filter functions a day, including design wins with all the top tier smartphone makers, and saw demand growing.

“Our goal in the formation of this joint venture was to enhance Qualcomm Technologies’ front end solutions to enable us to deliver a truly complete solution to the mobile device ecosystem, and we have done exactly that,” said Amon.

The work on RF360 epitomizes one of the two main prongs of Qualcomm’s strategy to offset the decline in unit and price growth in system-on-chip (SoC) products for smartphones. One prong is to boost revenue and market share by selling as many components of a device as possible; the other, of course, is to move into entirely new chip markets such as the connected car and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The best example of the first prong is the RF360 launch and the broader RF portfolio. In 2013, Qualcomm took the gamble of playing for more of the real estate in a device by offering the RF as well as the processor and modem. That has paid off over the past year or so, and at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, Qualcomm announced RFFE deals with Google, HTC, LG, Samsung and Sony Mobile.

In October 2017, Qualcomm hit gigabit speeds in a demonstration which used a combination of its X50 5G modem with its SDR051 RF transceiver chip, showing how it aims to supply the whole chain from processor to modem to RF in 5G, as it has started to do in 4G since launching RF360. The speed was achieved by aggregating “several” 100 MHz 5G carriers in the 28 GHz band.

This combination of technologies has been included in a reference design to help speed development for device makers, and make it easier for vendors to develop 5G devices.

Upgrading the RFFE will be highly strategic to Qualcomm’s ability to compete in 5G, now that it has moved away from relying on third parties in this area. For its 5G NR reference designs, it has various band combinations including sub-6 GHz and mmWave options, which will be in the field this year. Its RFEE solutions are also designed to help it expand into less saturated markets than smartphones, targeting drones, robotics, automotive applications and other IoT sectors. In some of these areas, pre-integrated modules – a minor element of the smartphone market, but a TDK speciality – will be essential.