RF Front-End Module Industry: What Are the Technical Choices Made by Apple?

Article By : Yole Développement

What are the technical choices made by the RF front end module manufacturers and OEMs ? What are the cost differences between the modules? What are the different manufacturing process steps? How can the smartphone maker’s choices and supplier tendencies be explained? System Plus Consulting and Yole present their vision of the latest innovations in the RF front-end module industry.

Consumer appetite for data has not been reduced by the Covid19 pandemic. People realized the importance of being connected during lockdown. Most of the data traffic increase has been handled by fixed networks, but mobile networks also have been affected. Many service providers had to adapt to the situation. Whether fixed or mobile, service providers have a great window for migrating consumers to broadband internet access and to the new 5G and Wi-Fi6 plus fibre standards. The benefit at the network operator level is the efficiency of the new technologies, which would reduce cost of operation.

RF Front-End & Connectivity Markets Poised for Double Digit Growth

5G poses challenges to the RF front-end industry with the development of wideband PAs and filters. To support 5G implementation, RF front-end companies decide large investments, especially in design and material engineering.

According to the market research and strategy consulting company Yole Développement (Yole), the PA module market will grow from US$5.4 billion in 2019 to US$8.9 billion by 2025. The RF front-end module (FEM) market will grow from US$2.6 billion in 2019 to US$4.6 billion by 2025.

The RF front-end and connectivity markets poised for double-digit growth is expected to reach US$25.4 billion market by 2025. Yole expects a 11% CAGR between 2019 and 2025. The market will be segmented into multiple major components.

5G & Wi-Fi 6 Benefit from the COVID-19 Pandemic

To cope with more stringent requirements in data transmission speed and better spectral efficiency, a 5G handset will feature a 4×4 Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) downlink for frequencies above 2.5 GHz. It will also have New Radio (NR) frequency bands along with Dual Connectivity (EN-DC) of 5G with LTE. There will be a 2×2 MIMO uplink in some cases and likely a diversity transmit link. Sounding reference signals will also be mandatory in 5G handset to optimize the radio link with an active antenna system within range.

On top of that, 5G devices will have to meet the definition of high power user equipment for Time Division Duplex (TDD) NR bands and to be capable of operating with at least 100 MHz of bandwidth. Carrier Aggregation (CA) will be applied to 5G as it was for LTE. Other features will be evaluated, such as supplementary uplink, which could affect the RF content.

Wi-Fi 6 will essentially democratize the use of 2×2 MIMO for up and downlink. Wi-Fi 6E will extend the frequency coverage of Wi-Fi signals to 6 GHz. New use cases such as file sharing or augmented reality and smart remote control are driving the need for a precise positioning technology. Thus, a new UWB radio will be added in handsets, further increasing the RF content.

US/China Trade War to Accelerate the Ecosystem Transition

China, South Korea and USA are early adopter countries of 5G where all major carriers have launched their network, as depicted in the figure, and where consumers are technology enthusiasts. In Japan, in Europe and for the rest of the world, 5G network rollout is moving forward at a slower pace. The Chinese market will pull most of the demand for 5G smartphones in 2020. The US government is putting a strong emphasis on 5G and Wi-Fi 6 with unprecedented spectrum auction plans to accelerate the technology adoption at a broader scale. Indeed, these technology transitions contribute greatly to gross domestic product (GDP) in a context where nations are looking for growth more than ever.

 

The RF front-end and connectivity market is led by five major companies sharing almost 80% of the overall business. Four out of five are US-based companies. The leading company is a Japanese firm. Decades of experience in the design and manufacturing of all major RF components explain the leading positions of Murata, Skyworks, Broadcom, Qorvo and Qualcomm. All major mobile device manufacturers rely on the expertise of one or more of these five as a first choice, as these companies provide state-of-the-art RF components.

However, a variety of other companies from China, South Korea, Japan and Europe complete the RF front-end offering. Since trade tensions between US and China have risen, this equilibrium will likely evolve. We can expect Chinese mobile device manufacturers to rethink their supply strategy and be more active in building a local ecosystem sooner or later. Indeed, it’s already started in Huawei’s case. The main difficulty comes from the baseband supply. The company has its own Kirin platform with HiSilicon, which can no longer access state-of-the-art foundries such as TSMC for the manufacturing of its SoCs. Huawei is known to have stockpiled critical components, but will have to either outsource its future SoC developments or develop local foundry capability, as depicted in figure 3. Huawei is likely running both options in parallel.

Regarding the RF front end and connectivity business, the supply of US based technologies is not strictly prohibited, only restricted. Qorvo and Skyworks used to strongly support Huawei, but will reduce their exposure in the future. Like the baseband side, Huawei is placing more orders for RF components to non-US based companies, especially to Japanese and European companies. Longer term, Huawei will develop the local ecosystem for RF parts by investing and making partnerships with local companies. As Huawei’s internal design house, HiSilicon has already extended its technology portfolio from Low Noise Amplifiers (LNAs),  to Power Amplifiers (PAs) and switches and has started to build PA modules. In addition, Huawei has invested in the filter company Shoulder. Advanced filter technology is the missing piece for Huawei to get a complete RF front-end as supplied by US-based companies.

What Are the Technical Choices made by Apple?

System Plus Consulting and Yole investigate disruptive RF technologies and related markets in depth. Apple’s dependency on specific component manufacturers is also clearly underlined in this report, along with the different choices for integration of communication technology, even millimeter wavelength (mmWave) signal support in the latest generation,” comments Stéphane Elisabeth from System Plus Consulting.

“In the iPhone series from 2016 to 2020, Apple’s strategy was to reduce the RF area size with a decrease of the board level at first until 2017, ”asserts Stéphane Elisabeth, PhD, Cost Analyst in RF and Advanced Packaging at System Plus Consulting. “But since, the board is increasing along with a stabilization of the RF share mainly even with 5G integration. Between 2017 and 2020, Intel was the only modem and transceiver (TRx) supplier for Apple. Qualcomm who lost the market in 2017, is getting in the iPhone design in 2020 and is likely to be kept in 2021 because of the 5G. In 2022, in-house modem and TRx could be expected from Apple.”

In the iPhone 12 series just released in 2020, several innovations in communication have been implemented. These innovations include the NFC with an additional controller and NFC antenna at the rear of the phone for accessories identification, the GPS with the integration of the new band L5 (1175 MHz) with improved signal structure, higher transmitted power and wider bandwidth, and the 5G communication with the integration of several band compatibility like n260 and n261 in the mmWave frequency band.

In parallel, Yole has released the 5G’s Impact on RF Front-End and Connectivity for Cellphones 2020 report, end of 2020. The 2020 edition gives detailed analysis of each RF technology’s strengths and weaknesses and delivers a detailed ecosystem snapshot. This study also points out COVID-19’s impact on the RF front-end and connectivity business.

As analyzed by System Plus Consulting’s team, 5G Sub-6 and mmWave integration in the 12th generation of iPhone lead to an increase of the module area. Compare to other players like OnePlus, the RF area is almost 40 % larger. Among the player who benefit from the 5G, System Plus Consulting lists Broadcom, Murata, Qorvo and Qualcomm.

On the packaging side, disruptive solution like DSBGA became to be the standard packaging for FEM. But in 2020, module supplier goes further with DSMBGA following Murata’s path. Since 2016, Murata remains the main supplier followed by Qorvo, Skyworks, and Broadcom. More than 90 % of the components are integrated devices. Apple rely on highly integrated US supplier like Qorvo, Broadcom or Skyworks but each for a unique position in the design. Moreover, using Qorvo’s Antenna tuners, Apple is able to offers a smartphone with a low number of Antenna.

As part of the RF front end module industry, the SAW filters are playing a key role. This has been examined in the SAW Filter Comparison 2020 report from System Plus Consulting. IHP SAW filter appears in 2018 with the iPhone Xs Max. Since it’s only used in Murata’s components in small production.

But, with the last generation i.e iPhone 12 Series, the BAW filter had a huge increase in the dedicated area (x6). Indeed, with the rise of 5G and WiFi6 almost all market leaders are looking for BAW solutions.

According to Cédric Malaquin in the 5G’s Impact on RF Front-End and Connectivity for Cellphones 2020 report: “Decades of experience in the design and manufacturing of all major RF components explain the leading positions of Murata, Skyworks, Broadcom, Qorvo and Qualcomm. All major mobile device manufacturers rely on the expertise of one or more of these five as a first choice, as these companies provide state of-the-art RF components. However, a variety of other companies from China, South Korea, Japan and Europe complete the RF front-end offering”.

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