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GaAs And Silicon CMOS PAs Go Head To Head In LTE War

Qualcomm has developed a CMOS power amplifier (PA) which is intended to knockoff whitebox mobile phone vendors
In the first half of 2013, the biggest news in the GaAs industry was Qualcomm’s introduction of its CMOS PA in February, for Long Term Evolution, or LTE.

LTE is a 4G wireless communications standard developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). It is designed to provide up to 10 times the speed of 3G networks for mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, netbooks, notebooks and wireless hotspots.

The introduction of the new chip once again initiated the war between CMOS and GaAs. Yet, most people believe that Qualcomm introduced the device to increase the competitiveness of its Baseband, not grab market share from GaAs vendors.

This is according to RnRMarketResearch.com's latest report on “Global and China GaAs Industry Report, 2012-2013."

CMOS PAs showed up before 2000, but have not been available in volume and are presently only used in the 2G field. This is mainly due to the difficulty in finding a balance between cost and performance. Yet, it seems that the RF360 of Qualcomm wants to break through this limitation.

Qualcomm is a large mobile phone Baseband vendor, whose revenue comes mainly from 3G and 4G telecommunication patent and Baseband, and is expected to make US $24.5 billion in 2013. From that, shipment of Baseband is anticipated to reach 700 million units, amounting to about US $13.5 billion.

The gross margin of mobile phone PAs is less than half of that of Qualcomm’s Baseband, and running a very high market risk. PAs are a critical part of a mobile phone; they not only determine the voice quality but also affect the stand-by and talking times.

Mobile phone vendors seldom change PA suppliers once they have been selected.

Qualcomm's RF360 is mainly aimed at dealing with MTK and Spreadtrum, and is intended to knockoff digital product whitebox vendors.

Whitebox phones are unbranded ; they are mobile phones that are devoid of the original manufacturer's logos so that resellers can add their own. They tend to be inexpensive yet multifunctional.

Vendors of whitebox adopt the platform of MTK or Spreadtrum instead of Qualcomm, for the simpler design and higher level of integration of the overall solution of the former two.

As for Qualcomm, it is an expert in Baseband design, not integrated solutions. So Qualcomm can’t enter the knockoff digital product market, which contains more than 100 million sets. So as to set foot in the field, Qualcomm introduced the RF360. This chip lowers the mobile phone design difficulty to a large extent. Bundle sales of RF360 and Baseband of Qualcomm will equip whitebox vendors with the ability to design a mobile phone independently.

On the other side, as the No.1 mobile phone vendor, Samsung contributes about US$5 billion to Qualcomm each year, though unwillingly. This is because the market for Baseband for Smartphones (except Chinese knockoff digital product whitebox) is monopolised by Qualcomm.

So, Samsung is currently developing its Baseband technology, and some of these devices have already been used in the Galaxy S3. But according to RnRMarketResearch.com, Qualcomm introduced the RF360 to raise the industry threshold and stop Samsung from developing its own Baseband. Samsung is very weak in the RF field, even weaker than some Chinese vendors.

Lots of start-ups are dedicated to replacing GaAs PA with CMOS PA technology, among which, Axiom has already realised a shipment of over 10 million sets for 2G mobile phones. What's more, Javelin announced its intention to mass-produce 3G PA using a CMOS process this June.

Unlike the start-ups, RFMD, Anadigics, Infineon and other existing suppliers showed skepticism about CMOS PA, believing that it is hard for this technology to strike a balance between cost and performance. Even Skyworks, which acquired Axiom, thinks that the application of CMOS PA in a high - end market like 3G and 4G is very limited.

Currently, CMOS PA is inferior to GaAs in amplifier performance, and doesn’t necessarily have a cost advantage. However, many large GaAs vendors acquired CMOS PA companies one after another to acquire technical reserves.

For example, on April 30th, 2013, Avago Technologies finished the acquisition of Javelin Semiconductor, without revealing the price. RF Micro Devices took over CMOS PA start-up Amalfi. In 2009, Skyworks acquired Axiom Microdevices. And several weeks ago, Peregrine Semiconductor declared its intention to cooperate with Murata in developing CMOS silicon-on-sapphire PAs for potential applications of front-end mobile phone modules.





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