Qualcomm chases 20% share of RF front-end market by 2022

Well-known for its modem business, Qualcomm sees the Radio Frequency Front End (RFFE) market for 5G as a major opportunity, with CAGR of at least 12% growing to around $18 billion within three years.

That’s up from the end of 2019, when the RFFE mobile handset market size was around $13 billion including 3G and 4G. Increased design complexities for 5G devices, which are built on 4G, is fueling the expected growth, according to Christian Block, SVP and GM at Qualcomm.

On a call with reporters Monday, Block said Qualcomm aims to capture more than 20% share of the RFFE market by the end of 2022 and is already on track to meet that target.  

Qualcomm modems get a lot of attention, but RFFE is a less talked about aspect driving 5G. Qualcomm views it as crucial, and the company’s next big business.

By the end of this year, the tech giant expects to take over the number one position in RFFE, according to Block, with additional growth opportunities coming next year. That, in part, is due to its modem-to-antenna system offerings, which Qualcomm believes offer competitive differentiation over peers like Broadcom, Skyworks and Qorvo.

“We’ve been winning really all the 5G designs on our platforms and also in agnostic platforms with other chipsets, we have been very successful,” Block said. “That led to excellent growth from the first to second quarter [fiscal year], not only sequentially but also year over year growth, so this means our 5G is working.”

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In fiscal Q2 Qualcomm’s RFFE business reported a more than 50% increase in revenues, sequentially and year over year.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform has launched or is in development on 375 mobile devices. In fiscal Q2 Qualcomm said the COVID-19 pandemic hurt results, with demand for 3G/4G/5G handsets about 21% lower than expected. At the time, Qualcomm guidance for Q3 assumed a 30% drop in handset shipments from pre-COVID-19 expectations.

Still, Block noted 200 million 5G handsets are already anticipated to ship in 2020, something that Qualcomm doesn’t see changing due to the current environment.

Qualcomm reports fiscal Q3 earnings next Wednesday, July 29.

5G brings increased complexity for device OEMs

With 5G, the total number RF band configurations needed within a device is expected to grow roughly 10 times compared to 4G, especially when considering carrier aggregation.

The figure soars from about 1,000 combinations today to over 10,000 for early 5G globally deployed. Compare that to 49 in 4G today, and just 16 in early 4G, according to Qualcomm.

“It’s all about data,” Block said, because the variety of combinations delivers high-speed, “true gigabit data.”

Analysis from ABI Research on Monday, based on recent 5G smartphone teardowns, aligns with Qualcomm’s view. The firm found that band combinations and along with other 5G considerations, smartphone OEMs face increased complexity, particularly with RFFE-related components.

ABI said RFFE content is moving to full level integrated modem-RF designs, which the firm cited as key to success as 5G adoption becomes more widespread.

“The move to 5G requires an integration of the entire 5G cellular system design into OEMs’ devices, from modem-to-antenna, addressing all aspects of end-to-end performance. This complexity level includes the integration and deployment of new 5G modem and RFFE components, features, and functionalities, leading to substantial changes in the design of mobile devices,” wrote ABI Research.

The complicated nature is part of what Qualcomm sees driving growth in the RFFE market, and its end-to-end capabilities make it “uniquely positioned to lead in the RF Front end,” Block said.

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ABI’s David McQueen, research director at the firm, in the analysis stated: “Smartphone OEMs are finding this [integration] change particularly challenging, as it makes their RFFE component procurement process and system design far more complex than ever. Unless adequately addressed, the burden brought about by the complexities of implementing 5G can lead to several issues, including lengthy product development cycles, more expensive devices, and huge constraints on device industrial designs.”

Some of Qualcomm’s elements include PAMiD, MMPA, filters, power trackers, millimeter wave antennas, and modem and transceiver modules.

While RFFE is an involved area, one aspect Qualcomm is moving up in is the filter space. RF filters isolate radio signals from the different spectrum bands phones use to receive and transmit information.

Block pointed to Qualcomm’s SAW and ultraSAW filter technology, the latter announced in February, which he said boosts performance and further differentiates the company.

“Qualcomm ultraSAW is designed to achieve lower insertion loss in in-band frequencies, and better out-of-band rejection,” he noted. The filters are targeted for frequencies below 3 GHz.

“Qualcomm is currently the only one able to offer an end-to-end product portfolio from modem-to-antenna, supplying products with end-to-end performance in fully integrated system designs,” ABI’s McQueen continued.

However, “third-party modem-RF system design will become a mainstream approach in support of many of the world’s top smartphone OEMs to solve their 5G conundrum, also influencing decision-making across all technologies, so Qualcomm is likely to be joined by others IF [emphasis McQueen’s] they can offer such turnkey solutions.”