On June 13th, 2018, 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), the international organization oversees global cellular standards, approved standalone 5G specifications. With the approved non-standalone 5G specifications in Dec 2017, 3GPP believes that “the whole industry is taking the final sprint towards 5G commercialization” with new end-to-end network architecture.
One of the key modules allows devices to connect with the mobile network is the radio frequency front-end (RFFE) module. The RFFE is the functional area of a mobile handset between the RF transceiver and the antenna, allowing the handset to send and receive data. Without a proper functioning RFFE, the device won’t be able to connect with the mobile network and essentially useless for users in today’s mobile environment. Although unfamiliar to most consumers, the RFFE is one of the most critical modules for mobile handset designers.
Typically, an RFFE module consists of power amplifiers (PAs), low noise amplifiers (LNAs), switches, duplexers, filters, and other passive components. The sophisticated requirement to support wide frequency bands and fast mobile broadband speeds has increased the RFFE content in mobile devices dramatically. For example, Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ are the first high volume smartphones that support Category (Cat) 16 LTE with a download speed of 1 GB per second. It carries over $25 worth of RFFE components per device, occupying almost 10% of its PCB real estate. In comparison, a Samsung Galaxy S5 has less than $15 worth of RFFE components uses only 6% of PCB real estate. According to Yole, the RFFE components market is expected to reach US$22.7 billion in 2022.
In addition to RFFE, it is expected that 5G mobile handset to carry displays that support 4K (3840 x 2160) or even 8K (7680 x 4320) screens to accommodate the virtual reality function. Moreover, smartphone makers may also double the memory chip used in 5G smartphone, giving consumers more space to download and use apps.
The upcoming 5G network requires devices to support radio frequency range all the way from 600 MHz to 71 GHz, depending on the locations. The requirement for the RFFE module is going to be more complicated and dynamic. Major chip suppliers, such as Qualcomm, Qorvo, and Skyworks Solutions are racing to take a lead in this market. Qorvo, recently announced QPF4005 and the QPF4006, two amplifiers to support 5G network. Last week, Qualcomm unveiled the world’s first fully-integrated 5G NR millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz RF modules, QTM052 antenna module family and QPM56xx SUB-6 GHz RF module family, for smartphones and other mobile devices. Along with their Snapdragon™ X50 5G modem, Qualcomm now can offer modem-to-antenna solutions that “make mobile 5G networks and devices, especially smartphones, ready for large-scale commercialization”.