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14 June 2013

Qualcomm’s CMOS PA targeted at increasing competitiveness of firm’s baseband

In its latest report ‘Global and China GaAs Industry Report, 2012-2013’ market analayst firm Research In China summarizes that in first-half 2013 the biggest news in the gallium arsenide industry was Qualcomm’s announcement in February of plans to introduce a CMOS silicon power amplifier (PA) targeting 4G LTE (long-term evolution) devices, once again initiating a war between CMOS and GaAs. However, most people believe that Qualcomm did that only to increase the competitiveness of its baseband, not to grab market from GaAs vendors, notes the market research firm. 

CMOS PAs appeared before 2000, but have not been available in volume and are currently only used for 2G applications, due mainly to the difficulty in finding a balance between cost and performance, says the firm. Yet, it seems that Qualcomm’s RF360 CMOS PA is aimed at breaking through this limitation. As a large mobile-phone baseband vendor, Qualcomm ‘s revenue comes mainly from 3G and 4G telecom patents and baseband shipments, and is expected to reach $24.5bn in 2013. Of that, baseband shipments are expected to reach 700 million units, worth about $13.5bn. 

Gross margin for mobile phone PAs is less than half of that of Qualcomm’s baseband, and runs a very high market risk. The PA is the second most important part of a mobile phone, not only deciding the voice quality but also determining the stand-by time and talk time. Mobile-phone makers seldom changes PA suppliers, once they have been selected, notes the market report. 

Qualcomm’s RF360 is targeted mainly at dealing with MTK and Spreadtrum, targeting knock-off digital product white-box vendors. White-box phones adopt the platform of MTK or Spreadtrum instead of Qualcomm, due to the simpler design and higher level of integration of the overall solution of the former two. In contrast, Qualcomm is expert in baseband design, not integrated solutions, hence it cannot enter the knock-off digital product market, which comprises more than 100 million sets. So, to set foot in this field, Qualcomm has introduced the RF360 chip, reducing the difficulty of mobile phone design to a large extent. Bundle sales of Qualcomm’s RF360 chip and baseband aim to equip white-box vendors with the ability to design mobile phones independently. 

On the other side, as the number 1 mobile phone vendor, Samsung contributes about $5bn to Qualcomm annually, albeit unwillingly, since the baseband market for smartphones (except Chinese knock-off whitebox digital products) is monopolized by Qualcomm. So, Samsung is currently developing baseband technology, and some has already been used for the Galaxy S3. However, Qualcomm is introducing the RF360 to raise the industry threshold and stop Samsung from developing its own baseband (and Samsung is very weak in the RF field - even weaker than Chinese vendors), notes Research In China. 

Lots of start-ups are dedicated to replacing GaAs PAs with CMOS PAs, among which Axiom Microdevices has already realized shipments of over 10 million sets for 2G mobile phones, it is reckoned. In addition, Javelin has announced its aim to mass produce 3G PAs using CMOS this June. 

Unlike the start-ups, RF Micro Devices, Anadigics, Infineon and other existing PA suppliers have shown skepticism about CMOS PAs, believing that it is hard for CMOS PAs to strike the balance between cost and performance. Even PA maker Skyworks Solutions, which acquired Axiom, thinks that the application of CMOS PAs in high-end markets (i.e. 3G and 4G) is very limited. 

Currently, the CMOS PA still has difficulties in achieving a balance between cost and performance, says the market research firm. It is inferior to GaAs in amplifier performance, and furthermore does not have an absolute advantage in cost. However, many large GaAs vendors have acquired CMOS PA firms - one after another - in order to gain a technical reserve. At the end of April, Avago Technologies completed the acquisition of Javelin Semiconductor. Last November, RFMD announced that it was acquiring CMOS PA start-up Amalfi. Skyworks acquired Axiom in 2009. Most recently, this Spring, Peregrine Semiconductor announced plans to cooperate with Murata in developing CMOS silicon-on-sapphire PAs for potential applications in front-end mobile phone modules, notes Research In China.

Tags: CMOS PAs



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