Built-in design key for radio techniques to resolve the complexity of RF frontends in 5G smartphones (Analyst Angle)

The 5G smartphone market is now outperforming its previous generations, including Long Term Evolution (LTE) smartphones, in nearly every metric, including the number of mobile devices, subscribers and networks available at launch. However, 5G brings with it a whole host of technical challenges, features and functions, as well as new radio elements to support new radio bands and combinations, all of which can lead to significant changes in the design of mobile devices.

This complexity is not only limited to the high-end level, but also to the availability of 5G smartphone models is being brought to market more diverse, rapidly at a variety of prices, and democratizing the 5G experience. Many leading Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are expected to dig deeper into the cheaper 5G smartphone segment. Hence, mid-range smartphones will be the main driver of accelerating adoption in 2021 and beyond, aided by the continued adoption of lower-end 5G chipset platforms. According to ABI Research, and despite the impact of the US-China trade war and the global COVID-19 pandemic, shipments of 5G smartphones will increase over 1,200% globally in 2020, and between 170 and 200 million units worldwide will reach over 15% of total smartphone sales. The market will then grow rapidly as 5G smartphones are available at all levels worldwide.

Solving the design burden that the radio frequency front end (RFFE) complexity brings to mobile devices is becoming increasingly important for leading OEMs. While 5G represents a tremendous opportunity for sub-6 gigahertz (GHz) and mmWave, they need to manage their smartphone designs in a smart way to supplement the number of SKUs across all price tiers that will manifest themselves in different ways Way, mainly:

  • Dealing with the increasing number of RFFE components caused by myriad 5G frequency bands and configurations, as well as new functions required for 5G functionality.
  • Ensure integration with 3G / 4G RFFE components to provide optimized configurations and better functionality for new functions such as DSS (Dynamic Spectrum Sharing), CA (4G-5G Carrier Aggregation), global 5G / 4G band support and global multi-subscribers to provide identity modules (SIMs).
  • Manage the complex and costly procurement processes associated with RF components, including working with multiple suppliers that could extend overall product development and time to market.
  • Addressing additional levels of complexity due to signs of a growing mmWave ecosystem.

These elements apply equally to CPE-OEMs (Customer Premises Equipment) with fixed wireless access who have no experience with the design of radio systems and therefore have to delegate them to RFFE specialists.

There is increasing evidence in the smartphone market that OEMs are increasing their adoption

Integrated designs from modem to antenna as well as for 5G and 3G / 4G systems. Such a strategic approach has so far been considered by a few suppliers in the market, with Qualcomm taking advantage of the first mover market advantage. However, this approach has been well received by a number of OEMs, be it for supporting 5G in sub -6 GHz, mmWave, or both. It’s worth noting here that Qualcomm’s leadership role in wireless system design was not a coincidence, but a strategy the company has developed for years.

Figure 1: Motherboard for Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

As the entire RFFE becomes one of the main drivers of revenue growth in the components industry, not just in terms of 5G, it becomes a fertile landscape. The supplier landscape will change rapidly in 2021 as leading suppliers strive for market share. Above that complexity is the industry’s move towards using 5G mmWave. The technology was once derided as too difficult to be of practical use for mobile devices, largely due to the limited coverage and high cost of implementation. However, over the past 18 months, these technological barriers have been broken and 5G mmWave is now a commercial reality for smartphones. Significantly, support for mmWave has been significantly improved as it is included in the SKUs for the entire Apple iPhone 12 range.

Much of the complexity of the mmWave RF design has been solved by a systems approach that is evolving to provide a reduced form factor and improved performance, latency, reliability, and efficiency. Qualcomm, Verizon and Ericsson, was the leading industry proponent for mmWave. Qualcomm introduced a fully integrated mmWave RF module design that is used in a multiple antenna configuration (often two or three) to reduce the effects of signal blockage. Thanks to these efforts, the companies recently reached a milestone when they demonstrated peak 5G speeds of 5.06 gigabits per second (Gbps) using the mmWave spectrum with CA. In addition, Verizon has announced plans to bring mmWave to 60 cities in the US by 2020.

The rapid miniaturization and continuous iterative improvement of mmWave modules also helped Bring it to compact industrial designs for smartphones. As a result, Qualcomm has already commercialized The third generation mmWave module (QTM535) is now in use a few months ahead of schedule and is included in the Samsung smartphones featured in this report. Compared to its predecessor, the QTM525, the new QTM535 is 16.7% narrower, has a 13.8% smaller footprint and a 10% smaller volume. Since the QTM535 is only 3.5 millimeters (mm) wide, it enables the activation of mmWave in very thin devices, such as B. foldable smartphones.

After a slow start mostly confined to the US market, the ecosystem dynamics for mobile mmWave is continues to expand as multiple regions target deployments and expand across the north America, Europe and Asia, led by operators in Japan, Russia, Italy, South Korea and Australia. Implementation of the technology in close combination with 5G New Radio (NR) below 6 GHz and With dual connectivity with LTE, mmWave is gaining traction by delivering on its promise to deliver new business opportunities and enhanced mobile and fixed wireless experiences while supporting advanced mobility features such as beamforming and beam tracking.

For more information on this topic, see the ABI Research whitepaper Teardowns of new 5G smartphones confirm the advantages of the integrated radio system design.

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