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The Trend of Mobile Radio Frequency Integration

The communication generation has developed from 2G to 4G, and every generation of honeycomb technology has undergone different innovations. Increase receiving diversity technology from 2G to 3G, carrier aggregation from 3G to 4G, and UHF, 4x4 MIMO and more carrier aggregation from 4.5G.

These changes have brought new growth momentum for the development of mobile phone radio frequency. The RF front-end of mobile phone refers to the communication components between antenna and RF transceiver, including filter, LNA (low noise amplifier), PA (power amplifier), switch, antenna tuning and so on.

The filter is mainly used to filter out noise, interference and unwanted signals, leaving only signals within the required frequency range.

PA amplifies the input signal through PA when transmitting the signal, so that the output signal is large enough for subsequent processing.

Switches use switching between turn-on and turn-off to allow signals to pass or fail.

The antenna tuner is located behind the antenna, but before the end of the signal path, the electrical characteristics of both sides are matched to improve the power transmission between them.

In terms of receiving signals, simply speaking, the signal transmission path is received by the antenna, then transmitted to LNA through switches and filters to amplify the signal, then to radio frequency transceiver, and finally to the fundamental frequency.

As for signal transmission, it starts from fundamental frequency, transmits to PA after receiving and receiving radio frequency, then to switch and filter, and finally transmits signal by antenna.

With the entry of 5G, more frequency band imports and more new technologies, the value of RF front-end components is increasing.

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As the technology of 5G import is more and more, the quantity and complexity of RF front-end parts increase sharply, but the PCB space allocated to this function by smart phones is declining, and it is a trend to increase the density of front-end parts through modularization.

In order to save the cost, space and power of mobile phones, the integration of 5G SoC and 5G RF chips will be the trend. This integration will be divided into three stages:

The first stage: In the initial stage, 5G and 4G LTE data transmission will exist independently. A 7-nanometer AP and a 4G LTE (including 2G/3G) base-frequency SOC are combined with a set of radio frequency chips (RFIC).

Supporting 5G is completely configurated by another independent configuration, including a 10-nanometer process, which can support both Sub-6GHz and millimeter-band 5G fundamental frequency chips. The front-end is equipped with two independent RF components, including one supporting 5G Sub-6GHz RF and the other supporting millimeter-wave RF front-end antenna module.

Phase 2: Considering the process yield and cost, the mainstream configuration will still be an independent AP and a smaller 4G/5G fundamental frequency chip.

Phase 3: There will be solutions for AP and 4/5G fundamental frequency chip SoC, LTE and Sub-6GHz RF will also have opportunities to integrate. As for millimeter-wave RF front-end, it must still exist as a separate module.

According to Yole's forecast, the global RF front-end market will grow from $15.1 billion in 2017 to $35.2 billion in 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of 14%. In addition, according to Navian estimates, modularization now accounts for about 30% of the RF component market, and the modularization ratio will gradually increase in the future under the trend of continuous integration.

Extended Reading: An Analysis of the Full 5G Radio Frequency Supply Chain

The 5G generation has set off a new revolution in science and technology. If 2G to 3G brings basic analogy communication to personal digital applications, then 4G to 5G will connect more scenes in series. Therefore, 5G is not only considering the connection between people, but also linking people and things, things and things in series.

Communication technology has entered the 5G era, and the technology of bandwidth, delay and synchronization has been improved comprehensively, which also promotes the upgrading of wireless communication module technology.

The wireless communication module is mainly divided into three parts: RFFEM, RF transceiver module and basic frequency signal processor. Among them, the RF front-end module mainly allows the signal to receive and receive at different frequencies.

In terms of product output value, the average cost (full band) of the front-end module of the 4G generation is about $10, while that of the 4.5G generation is about $18. The market estimates that 5G will exceed $50. According to Yole data, the mobile phone RF front-end market will be 15 billion US dollars in 2017, and it is expected to reach 35.2 billion US dollars in 2023, with an annual compound growth rate of 14%.

Analysis of Radio Frequency Components

The RF front-end module mainly includes power amplifier (PA), duplexer, switch, filter and low noise amplifier (LNA).

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Filter: It can filter noise, suppress signal interference, absorb sudden waves, and select frequency to ensure that signals do not interfere with each other at different frequencies. Its market is the largest, with about US$8 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach US$22.5 billion in 2023, with an annual compound growth rate of 19%, mainly due to the growth of demand for BAW in high-frequency communications.

Power Amplifier: It is responsible for amplifying the transmitted signal and is also the most power-consuming component. The market size ranks second, with about $5 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach $7 billion in 2023, with an annual compound growth rate of 7%.

Radio Frequency Switch: Responsible for switching between receiving and transmitting channels. The market size ranks third, reaching US$1 billion in 2017, and is expected to grow to US$3 billion in 2023, with an annual compound growth rate of 15%.

Duplexer: Simply speaking, the transmitting/receiving signal is separated to ensure that the transmitting/receiving signal can work properly at the same time.

Low Noise Amplifier: Responsible for amplifying the signal received by the antenna.

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Development Status of Filter Market

RF filters include surface acoustic filter (SAW), bulk acoustic wave filter (BAW), MEMS filter, IPD and so on. Among them, SAW and BAW filters are the mainstream of mobile phone applications.

The top five manufacturers of global SAW filter market share are Murata (47%), TDK (21%), Solar Induced Electricity (14%), Skyworks (9%) and Qorvo (4%), and the top five total share is as high as 95%, forming an oligopoly market. The manufacturers of SAW filters in China include Mega Technologies, De Tsinghua Ying (Xinwei Communications) and Haoda Electronics.

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As for BAW filters, the oligopoly situation is more serious. The top three filters in the market are Bloom (87%), Qorvo (8%) and Solar Induced Power (3%), totaling 98%.

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Development of Power Amplifier

Mobile phone frequency band continues to increase, the number of PA also increases. The required PA chips for 4G multi-mode multi-frequency mobile phones are between 5 and 7. Strategy Analytics estimates that up to 16 PAs will be available in 5G mobile phones.

At present, most of the global PA market is occupied by Skyworks (43%), Qorvo (25%), Bloom (25%) and Murata (3%). Skyworks, Qorvo and Bloomcom adopt IDM mode. However, with the investment of many Waferless PA design companies, the PA wafer OEM model is also rising, mainly stable and so on.

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All of the above introductions are based on components. According to the integration degree, the RF front-end module of mobile terminal equipment can be divided into high, medium and low integration modules. Highly integrated products mainly include PAMiD and LNA Div FEM, mainly for high-end mobile phones; moderately integrated products mainly include FEMiD, PAiD, SMMB PA and MMMB PA.

For example, Qorvo's PAMID, Avago's PAMID and Epcos's FEMID are used in the iPhone X. PAMiD is a highly integrated product, which integrates multi-mode and multi-frequency PA, RF switches and filters, while FEMiD is a moderately integrated product, which mainly integrates RF switches and filters.

Overall, the RF front-end technology is still dominated by European and American manufacturers, with Skyworks, Qorvo and Botong monopolizing half of the country. At the same time, Qualcomm also looks at the cake of radio frequency components and has launched related products. These large European and American telecommunications companies have invested in increasing the entry threshold of high-level market, resulting in other emerging small factories can only develop to low-and medium-level mobile phones, forming a fierce price competition.