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Wireless Contestants Diversify And Win

As the RF components market remains robust, RF Micro Devices, Skyworks, and TriQuint are vying for market share. Compound Semiconductor talks to Dale Pfau from global finance firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, about the winners and the losers.
 

Apple image:

As Apple reports an 18% increase in its sales - the slowest rise since 2009 - customer diversification proves crucial for RF components makers [Credit: Apple]

The race is on to win market share in the ever-so steady RF components space. As volume growth rates remain robust at around 15% a year, Skyworks and RFMD recently reported strong quarterly earnings, and have forecast a healthy guidance for the March quarter.

Likewise, TriQuint has unveiled solid earnings exceeding analyst estimates, but following a disappointing forecast for the next quarter, shares have stumbled several percentage points.

“It is extremely obvious that RFMD and Skyworks are taking market share," asserts Dale Pfau, analyst from US-based Cantor Fitzgerald. “In my opinion, TriQuint isn't even participating in major conversations with handset OEMs... and is dangerously close to becoming a marginal player in advanced mobile devices." (TriQuint refutes this claim. Its view is given below, under the heading “TriQuint’s take on the smartphone business")

Pfau believes both Skyworks and RFMD have been able to predict a relatively strong March guidance because each also has a relatively broad customer base.

TriQuint doesn't. And what's more its largest customer - Foxconn, Taiwan-based contract manufacturer for Apple - is suffering from a near-term slowdown at the US consumer electronics multinational.

In the last fiscal year, more than 30% of TriQuint's revenues came from Foxconn, while some 25% of SkyWorks' revenues, and 10% of RFMD's revenues, could be attributed to Apple. Crucially, Skyworks and RFMD also win between 20% and 30% of revenue from Samsung, and are ramping up supply to Nokia and Research in Motion.

“TriQuint has the largest exposure to Apple... but Samsung isn't even a 10% customer for the company," highlights Pfau. “Apple had a strong fourth quarter, but first quarter shipments of iPhones are lower. Anyone with exposure to Apple has had to significantly cut production forecasts for the March quarter."

So where next for TriQuint? Pfau expects the III-V content in mobile phones to continue to rise, but adds: “It's going up but not as fast as the total RF content. You are seeing additional content, such as antenna matching structures and filters, rising and these are not going to be manufactured with, say, GaAs."

Indeed, TriQuint now appears to be turning its attention to the filter market. As chief executive Ralph Quinsey recently stated: “We are expanding capacity for high performance filters in anticipation of strong demand in the second half of 2013 and beyond. These are terrific markets with demand being driven by LTE...  and only one other player can provide a full suite of advanced filters."

 Meanwhile the overall RF components market is expected to not only grow in size, but also complexity. “We have things like envelope tracking and carrier aggregation coming, and this demands complete systems solutions and close integration with baseband suppliers," says Pfau. “But companies such as Skyworks and RFMD can architect the entire front end for you. This expertise is winning."

TriQuint’s take on the smartphone business

TriQuint’s expectations for its future in the GaAs power amplifier business differ a great deal from those of analyst Dale Pfau from Cantor Fitzgerald. While Pfau claims that the company is dangerously close to becoming a marginal player in the smartphone business, TriQuint believes that it will continue to play a significant role in this sector.

“We are on the table with the OEMs," asserts Shane Smith, TriQuint’s Vice President of Global Marketing for Mobile Devices. “There is not a customer that we don’t have any conversations, or presence, or examples of design wins with."

 

However, he acknowledges that TriQuint’s share of GaAs power amplifier market has dipped recently. According to him, this is partly due to a relatively small proportion of TriQuint’s products being shipped to the more successful mobile phone manufacturers of late, while those handset manufacturers that rely more heavily on the company for components have struggled in recent times. For example, TriQuint is the leading GaAs-based, front-end supplier to Research in Motion. This firm manufactures Blackberry smartphones, which were not particularly popular last year, but may revive following the launch of the Blackberry 10.

Capacity limitations have also been behind TriQuint’s loss of market share in the GaAs-based power amplifiers sector.  According to Smith, this has recently been addressed with a $200 million investment in capital equipment, followed by investment in qualifying products and developing them throughout last year.

 

“In 2013, we have qualified lines ready to support the volume with a competitive product portfolio that is winning design wins." This includes the Samsung Galaxy S4 that is slated for release on 14 March. “We have a significant number of design wins in those models," says Smith. “It’s more than one component."

 

TriQuint’s sales will also be bolstered by increased diversification. “We are growing not only in III-V technology. We are growing in silicon technology that doesn’t use our fabs but is vital in our modules," says Smith, who adds: “And we are not only growing in cellular, with its advanced LTE requirements in filters and PAs. We are also growing in wireless LAN."



Ralph Quinsey image:

TriQuint's chief executive, Ralph Quinsey, believes increasing LTE adoption will drive high performance RF filter sales.




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