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Cellular Offers Little Hope For RF GaN, Says Report

A new study on the market for RF power semiconductors suggests that developers of GaN-based RF transistors should target military and satellite applications and steer clear of cellular infrastructure.

Developers of high-power RF semiconductors based on GaN and SiC materials will have little success if they continue to focus on the cellular infrastructure market.

That's according to a new study carried out by ABI Research that focuses on the six key markets for RF semiconductors operating at above 5 W and below 3.8 GHz.

It suggests that the overall market for these devices should grow to almost $1 billion in 2011, driven by applications in cellular infrastructure, defense, broadcasting, commercial avionics, non-cellular communications and science, medicine and industry.

ABI research director Lance Wilson, a 30-year veteran of the wireless communications business who previously worked at Motorola, told compoundsemiconductor.net, "Everybody gets seduced by wireless infrastructure, but getting into [this market] is extremely difficult."

"To get products qualified can be more difficult than getting into the military [market]," added Wilson.

While GaN and SiC-based RF transistors do show some impressive performance, he firmly believes that silicon LDMOS will continue to be "the elephant in the room" as far as cellular infrastructure applications are concerned.

"In my opinion, the chase for [cellular] infrastructure has retarded the growth of the GaN business," Wilson said. "They have gone after the wrong market."

Instead, he says, the key RF application areas for wide-bandgap materials are the ones that require higher powers and, crucially, that operate at relatively high frequencies. This means that military and satellite communications offer the best chances for the high-performance semiconductors in the sub-3.8 GHz range.

But the area where GaN could really come into play is at frequencies above 3.8 GHz, claims Wilson. "Here, the big elephant has gone," said the analyst, pointing out that silicon LDMOS doesn't work at these high frequencies, and that GaAs-based solutions tend to struggle to deliver the high powers that will be necessary for some emerging applications.

Aside from further military uses in this range, the medical world could offer a sizeable future market, Wilson said. The magnetrons and traveling-wave tubes that are currently employed as microwave generators could eventually be replaced by solid-state digital technologies.

The ABI Research report RF Power Semiconductors: an in-depth Market-based Analysis is available now from the company's web site.

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