Qualcomm dominates the smartphone silicon space so thoroughly that its hard to imagine there’s a component in a phone’s communication system that it doesn’t design. It leads the market in both the processors that run our phone apps and the baseband chips that interpret wireless signals. But if Qualcomm has it its way it will one day be supplying every communication component in the phone, from the base of the antenna to the multimedia engine.
Until recently Qualcomm was a non-factor when it came to the myriad of radio frequency (RF) components that reside between the baseband and the antenna. That part of the phone has always been the playground of specialty companies like RF Micro Devices, Avago Technologies and Skyworks.
Last February, though, Qualcomm signaled its intentions of treading deep into their turf with a new product called the RF360. Qualcomm’s claim was it could build a better set of RF technologies in the phone, ones that consume less power, take up less space and, most importantly, support the rapidly proliferating number of LTE bands used throughout the world.
Qualcomm’s quest toward phone domination has been slow going so far. The RF360 is actually a collection of four different components, each with a specialized task, and so far Qualcomm has only landed design wins for two of them. The Google Nexus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 both use RF360’s envelope tracker, which cuts down on the power a phone needs to connect to a tower. Nokia is using Qualcomm’s antenna tuner in the new Lumia 1520.
But according to Cristiano Amon, EVP and co-president of Qualcomm Technologies, the heart of the RF360 is a component called the RF Pop, a 3D circuit that can support up to 40 different 2G, 3G and LTE bands when paired with one of Qualcomm’s baseband chips. That RF Pop — along with the fourth component, a power amplifier — will make it into commercial handsets this year, Amon said. And by the end of the year, the first smartphone using Qualcomm technologies front-to-back will make its commercial debut, he said.
Will that phone be a truly global phone? Not quite. Just because the RF360 can support 40 bands doesn’t mean it will support them all at once. But Amon said that device makers who use the RF360 will get a lot closer to that holy grail of a single phone that can work in every region of the world.
Amon is hoping Qualcomm can cut the number of separate variants a vendor has to produce by a third if not half. For a device maker like Apple that means it could reduce the number of iPhone variants it produces from five to just two or three. And as Qualcomm improves its technology it hopes to eventually achieve that goal of a single global phone, Amon said.
Of course, Qualcomm isn’t the only one working on these technologies. The traditional RF component makers, along with specialty vendors like Nujira and Quantance, all have their own envelope trackers and multi-band RF technologies either on the market or in the works. Peregrine Semiconductor this week unveiled an RF front end technology that it claims will let a single phone connect to more than 40 LTE bands.