Though its mobile processors and modems get more attention, Qualcomm's (QCOM) radio-frequency (RF) chip business has been gradually gaining steam, thanks in part to a strong 5G position.
Last summer, Qualcomm unveiled a pair of 5G RF module families -- one for more conventional, sub-6Ghz, spectrum bands, and another for high-frequency, millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands that have limited range but can support very high upload and download speeds. The company followed that up in February of this year by unveiling -- along with a second-gen 5G modem known as the Snapdragon X55 -- a second-gen, mmWave, antenna module and a slew of new RF products for sub-6GHz bands.
From all indications, design win activity for the products has been pretty strong. In January, at the CES trade show, Qualcomm said that of the 30-plus 5G devices set to launch in 2019 and contain its Snapdragon 855 processor and X50 modem, nearly all will use its RF front-end (RFFE) products. And given that both are forecast to arrive in commercial devices by late 2019, it wouldn't be surprising to see the RF products announced in February go inside a lot of the devices packing the Snapdragon X55.
Among the sub-6GHz RF products that Qualcomm showed off in February was the QET6100, a chip declared to be the first envelope tracking solution for 5G radios capable of supporting 100MHz spectrum channels. By dynamically adjusting the voltage of a phone's RF power amplifiers (among the most power-hungry components within a phone) to make sure they're running at peak efficiency, envelope trackers can significantly improve a phone's battery life.
During a talk with TheStreet, Nitin Dhiman, Qualcomm's Senior Manager of Product Marketing, was particularly eager to talk about how Qualcomm's envelope tracker differentiates its broader 5G RF portfolio for sub-6GHz bands. He noted that RF front-ends account on average for about a third of a phone's power consumption, and asserted "premium 5G" devices relying on envelope tracking are seeing up to a 50% reduction in RF current relative to ones relying on conventional average power tracking solutions.
Dhiman also stressed that the higher power consumption needs of 5G radios -- a product of the radios relying on higher frequency bands and larger amounts of spectrum, as well as higher transmit power levels -- increased the value of cutting power consumption via envelope tracking. And he insisted that Qualcomm's ability to develop a 5G envelope tracker, one that could handle massive 100MHz spectrum channels, was a technical feat that until recently was considered impossible.
When asked about design win activity for the envelope tracker, Dhiman said that when it comes to "premier tier" 5G phones relying on Qualcomm's modems, every OEM is using its envelope tracking technology. And while he noted that some premium 5G phones featuring rival modems are using average power tracking, he insisted that a "practical" 5G device can't be made without envelope tracking for networks that have fully deployed the uplink bandwidth available to devices, per 5G standards.
Separately, Qualcomm exec Samir Khazaka noted that the 5G envelope tracker was among the technologies made possible by his company's efforts to create end-to-end 5G solutions that extend from a phone's modem to its antenna. Qualcomm has argued for a while that its unique ability to deliver such end-to-end offerings, in which a modem's software and network intelligence can help tune how the RF front-end operates, will be a key competitive strength for its RF chip business as 5G networks roll out.
The 5G RF chip market isn't a winner-takes-all game. The likes of Skyworks (SWKS) , Qorvo (QRVO) and Broadcom (AVGO) should also have their share of opportunities in this market, which should help meaningfully grow the size of the total smartphone RF chip market.
Qorvo, it should be noted, has unveiled a 100MHz, 5G, envelope tracking solution it says will be available in 2020. And Broadcom recently inked a 2-year RF chip supply deal with Apple (AAPL) that includes 5G products; not long after that, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo issued a report suggesting that Broadcom will pick up six 5G RF power amplifier module slots within Apple's 2020 flagship iPhones.
However, what Qualcomm has shared about its 5G design win activity to date suggests that the company is poised to gain RF front-end share as 5G phones, which are still in the very early stages of being adopted, proliferate. And the details Qualcomm is sharing about how its 5G RF offerings are differentiated suggest this market has turned into an R&D priority for its chip business.