OpenRF consortium could save time, money for smartphone industry

Major chipset and RF front-end suppliers have joined to form the Open RF Association (OpenRF) consortium, aiming to reduce some of the complexity, time, and costs of building a smartphone.

The group, whose founding members include Broadcom, Intel, MediaTek, Murata, Qorvo, and Samsung, plan to develop a framework to standardize hardware and software across RF front end and modem platforms.  

Qualcomm, a leader in the wireless chipset space that has targeted RF front end (RFFE) as its next big business, is notably absent from the list. In July, the chip giant said it expected to take over the number one position in RFFE by the end of the year and was on track to capture more than 20% of the market by the end of 2022.   

It has an integrated modem-to-RF portfolio that Qualcomm sees as a differentiator over peers.

OpenRF called its initiative to harmonize interoperability and create standards between chipsets and RFFE a “win-win-win” for OEMs, RFFE, and chipsets.

Broad benefits of the OpenRF effort, outlined in a white paper (PDF) by Mobile Experts chief analyst Joe Madden, include R&D savings across all three parts of the ecosystem, faster time to market and more simplicity for OEMs, improved economy of scale, and reduced risks and inventory costs.

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“The number of smartphones sold each year has stopped growing, but the level of complexity for the RF chain continues to grow and has become truly mind-boggling,” wrote Madden.

Increasing complexity is an issue as handset-makers look to bring new 5G smartphones to markets and the number of RF band configurations soar.

There are expected to be over 10,000 RF band configurations for 5G devices, growing from 1,000 in 4G today.  

Not only are there more spectrum bands in play for 5G, but features like carrier aggregation – which enables operators to combine different channels for more capacity – add to the tally.

Mobile Experts also pointed to different MIMO configurations and “nearly infinite choices” to apply other elements like amplifiers or filters.

OpenRF laid out broad plans that include five working groups. The first is to create a register map framework building “a set of core chipset and RF front end features and interfaces that will enable interoperability across 5G basebands while allowing innovation across vendors.”

In its software API working group, OpenRF plans to develop “a common hardware abstraction layer enhancing the transceiver/modem and RFFE interface,” and address a set of common hardware interface features across chipsets in its hardware RFFE/RFIC group. The last two groups focus on approaches to RF power management and a compliance program, respectively.

Savings from standardizing common elements

The smartphone industry pours billions of dollars into R&D each year – around $1.5 billion for RFFE suppliers alone by Mobile Experts estimates and higher for other parts of the ecosystem.

That includes spending on basic features that don’t actually provide an advantage over other players, the report noted.

By standardizing common elements that aren’t competitive, the firm estimates the industry could save $900 million annually in R&D costs.

Smartphone-makers stand to recoup the most at $550 million in R&D savings per year, according to a white paper. Modem suppliers could collectively save about $220 million, while RFFE suppliers account for the rest, at $130 million in savings.

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Mobile Experts noted those figures depend on whether enough companies follow the standardized approach and the strength of that, but seemed optimistic.

“Based on statements of players that have already signed up, we see almost a billion dollars per year that can be redirected to the leading edge of R&D, instead of basic drivers and register settings,” wrote Madden.  

Some founding members indicated a simplified process, along with supplier choice is key to the group.   

“OpenRF provides the framework to streamline and condense the OEM’s design cycle, from inception to product launch. This is a critical step to promote a pro-competitive environment, allowing OEMs to freely choose solutions based on performance, size and cost,” said Broadcom’s David Archbold, VP of Marketing, Wireless Semiconductor Division, in a statement.