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The Qualcomm 4G Radio Chip: Hit Or Hype?

Qualcomm's new radio chipset may take us closer to a global 4G phone, but does it really signal an end to GaAs power amplifiers in handsets, asks Compound Semiconductor.
 When Qualcomm unveiled its CMOS-based front end module, shares of compound semiconductor wireless chip vendors slumped.

RFMD's nose-dived by more than 14%, Skyworks' dropped 13%, TriQuint's dipped by around 7% while Avago Technologies shed three percentage points. Some analysts cut RF vendor ratings, describing Qualcomm's release as a 'bombshell', while further down the supply chain the shares of UK-based III-V wafer maker, IQE, fell more than 13% in a day.

Three weeks on and normality is returning. Shares of all industry players are edging up. SkyWorks is busy showcasing its front-end platform - boasting take-up from myriad OEMs - while RFMD has unveiled new power amplifiers and transmit modules. So was Qualcomm's latest offering such a bombshell after all?

Described as the first, single global 4G LTE design for mobile devices, Qualcomm hopes its “RF360" will end roaming problems that see travellers all-to-quickly bumped down to a 3G network. 4G LTE is the fastest commercially available wireless data standard but fragmentation between the world's LTE-supported 40 frequencies means it's not universal across the US and Europe.

But despite the hope, many analysts still question when this will take place. The new RF front-end is slated to reach handsets later this year, and while the chipset could make 4G phones compatible throughout the US and Europe, compatibility across networks would be a problem, as operators haven't yet confirmed 4G roaming agreements.

Operator issues aside, the knee-jerk reaction of many has been that Qualcomm will not initially target the high-end markets dominated by compound semiconductor power amplifier heavyweights. Research analyst JoAnne Feeney from US-based Longbow Research has stated that potential technology shortcomings - relative to GaAs power amplifiers - will see the chipset adopted in lower-end smartphones.

Likewise, Raymond James analyst, Tavis McCourt, highlighted uncertain performance, predicting the solution would first penetrate Chinese markets. Indeed, in a recent stockholder conference,  Qualcomm chief executive Paul Jacobs said: “If we are focusing on China, it's been a great market for us... It's the number one smartphone country in the world, 200 million smartphones were shipped in China in 2012 with a growth of 132% year-over-year."

Asif Anwar, analyst at Strategic Technologies, US, has a different take. “My initial reaction was, yes, Qualcomm is going into the high-volume, low-end Chinese market with this," he says. “But then the company also talks about proprietary packaging giving a 50% reduction in board, this will be more expensive...The smartphone market is moving into the mainstream, and you're going to need a combination of performance and cost."

Anwar, like many, is also adamant GaAs still has the performance edge despite rapid progress from CMOS competitors.

Qualcomm has worked hard on its envelope-tracking (ET) technology to reduce power consumption by up to 30%, and nudge the efficiency of CMOS power amplifiers closer to that of GaAs.

At the same time Nujira, has revealed “breakthrough" test results from a prototype CMOS power amplifier coupled with its envelope-tracking power modulators. Chief executive, Tim Haynes asserts: “The combination of CMOS PAs and Nujira patented ET architectures could ultimately signal the death of the GaAs industry for handset applications."

However, RFMD has now released new ET power management products, with president Eric Creviston claiming to be “enthusiastic about the deployment of ET-based solutions". As Anwar highlights: “Envelope tracking isn't solely confined to CMOS PAs, you can also apply it to GaAs power amplifiers. RFMD has just announced ET for its PAs as well as GaAs PAs designed to work with Qualcomm's ET. Other PA suppliers will follow with PAs designed for ET."

The one-stop-shop

Qualcomm also highlights how its latest front-end, when combined with its Gobi or Snapdragon baseband chip-sets, can provide a comprehensive solution that will help OEMs minimise development and design costs. As chief executive, Jacobs, highlighted in a recent stockholder conference, Nokia Lumia, Galaxy S3, HTC One and Sony XperiaZ are all built on Snapdragon chipsets. But do high-end market players want a complete base-band and front-end solution?

“If you open up an Apple or a Samsung phone you will see [components from] TriQuint, RFMD, Avago, Skyworks and Anadigics, they are all there," says Anwar. “So the handset OEMs are quite comfortable with mixing and matching components to optimise performance at a competitive cost, and differentiate their products."

Indeed, other analysts question the benefits of uniformity for OEMs, claiming it could stifle competition by removing the ability of these major players to differentiate handsets.

And competitive edge or not, many OEMs still manufacture a range of hand-set platforms. Nokia for example provides the high-end Lumia handset as well as its entry-level Asha device, and will require a flexible solution depending on the hand-set.

So now the wireless dust has settled around Qualcomm's innovative, and much-awaited front-end, can the GaAs chip developer breathe easy again? Yes, for now.

As Anwar puts it: “All of this isn't to say the Qualcomm front-end won't have an impact, of course it will, but we're not going to see Qualcomm take away GaAs market share straight away."

Paul E Jacobs, chairman and chief executive of Qualcomm, recently won the Edison Achievement Award, for executives whose accomplishments serve as inspiration to industry.

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