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With ultraBAW filter offering Qualcomm becomes a one-stop-shop for 5G device RF solutions

RCR Wireless News, November 3, 2021
Qualcomm insists on calling its product offering a “Modem-RF System” highlighting the importance of RF in achieving excellent smartphone performance, as well as the tight integration between modem and RF subsystems that can take the performance even further. 
Despite the rapid expansion of its RF product portfolio and business growth, there was a small but important gap in Qualcomm’s RF armor—BAW filters, which are important for spectrum bands higher than 2.5 GHz. With the announcement of ultraBAW filters, Qualcomm sealed that gap and become a de facto one-stop shop for the RF needs of 5G device OEMs.

RF – The least understood yet most important sub-system in 5G devices

One of the biggest reason RF is not talked about as much as the other parts of a smartphone such as GPU or CPU is that it is obscure, complex, and hard to understand. Yet, the very reason we can easily and seamlessly navigate our smartphones between different technologies, be it 3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or others, numerous spectrum bands including traditional Sub-5GHz bands or new mmWave bands, all with a single, sleek device, is because of the magic of phones’ RF subsystem. 
RF subsystem is not monolithic. It is a collection of several different components each with specific a purpose. Typically, a smartphone would have a few high-power amplifiers (HPAs) and low noise amplifiers (LNAs), a variety of filters, lots of switches, as well as envelop tackers, antenna tuners, and more. The volume of these components and their complexity grew exponentially when we moved from 3G to 4G to 5G and are set to increase even more with the expansion of 5G. Accordingly, the importance and the value of RF grew in parallel. The share of RF in the total Bill of Material (BoM) of today’s 5G phones is rapidly growing. Hence RF has become a major growth driver for many companies. Qualcomm publicly sets itself a rather challenging target of achieving a 20% share of the total RF Serviceable Addressable Market (SAM), and it has claimed that it is on track to achieve or exceed that target by 2022.
Side note: For details more details on the Modem-RF system, please check out my Forbes article Differentiate 5G Smartphone Performance with The Right Modem and RF Strategy.  

What is the significance of the ultraBAW announcement?

Historically RF market has been very fragmented. Typically, OEMs would get different components from a variety of vendors, trying to achieve a fine balance between performance, cost, and vendor diversity. Among the various RF components, some are more valuable than others. For example, switches are the least complex and are a volume driver, HPA and LNA are quite important for performance. Filters are altogether a different beast. Their importance has especially increased with the increase in the number of bands and operating frequencies. This 2015 chart from TDK presented by Mr. Christian Block nicely presents the various kinds of filters needed for different frequency bands. It is worth noting that Mr. Block is currently the head of Qualcomm’s RFFE business. 
Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) filters have been around for a long time. They are best suited for frequencies up to 2.5 GHz. Temperature Controlled – SAW (TC-SAW) filters, as the name suggests, are for high-temperature applications to maintain integrity and performance. Bulk Acoustic Wave (BAW) filters are needed to support frequencies higher than 2.5 GHz. Considering that many of the 5G bands including the 3.5GHz mid-band will be in the higher range, BAW filters are going to be a key part of the 5G device RF. So far, Broadcom almost had a monopoly on high-performance BAW filters, but, no more!
Qualcomm as part of the expansion of its RF portfolio had announced utraSAW filters in 2020. They claim that these filters perform far better than traditional SAW and TC-SAW filters, and even extend their utility up to 2.7GHz. Now with the announcement of ultraBAW filters, they will have solutions that cover any band up to 7 GHz, including cellular and Wi-Fi technologies. These will span applications across broadband, automotive, IoT, and other markets.
The fact that in a short span Qualcomm has bagged many design wins for its ultraSAW filters bodes very well for the prospect of ultraBAW filters. It would be interesting to watch how their competition with Broadcom shapes in the coming months and years.

Comprehensive portfolio – One-stop shop for 5G RF 

Kudos to the vision of its management, Qualcomm quite early foresaw the RF challenges and opportunities that will arise with 5G. Accordingly, they meticulously invested and built their RF business in the last few years—first through the joint venture with TDK, and later fully acquiring TDK’s RF business. Qualcomm currently has an expansive and comprehensive portfolio of RF solutions. The only thing missing was BAW filters, but with this announcement, that gap has been filled as well. This means Qualcomm has become a one-stop shop for not only RF but also for the full Modem-RF system in 5G devices. 
Being a complete supplier brings lots of benefits to OEMs, Qualcomm as well as end-users. For starters, a well-integrated and tightly coupled Modem-RF system improves performance, in terms of better coverage, higher and consistent speeds, longer battery life, thinner and lighter devices, and more. OEMs can simply utilize Qualcomm’s reference design with its modem and RF components for not only best-performing devices but also for substantially reduced R&D and product development time and costs. For Qualcomm, this means an even higher share in the device BoM, the opportunity to bundle their offerings for better efficiency, more stickiness in business, strong leadership in a fast-expanding market, and most importantly performance leadership. That’s exactly why I think this announcement is a key development in the 5G ecosystem space. In one of my earlier Forbes articles, I had likened the modem-RF relationship to made for each other marriage. And now with ultraBAW, that marriage just got even stronger. 
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