There is a new round of innovations in radio-frequency (RF) architecture, design, and manufacturing amid huge opportunities in the 5G wireless and Internet of Things (IoT) realms. According to market research firm Yole Développement, the RF front-end industry is set to grow at a CAGR of 14 percent to reach $22.7 billion in 2022.
The 5G designs are driving much of the innovation in RF front-ends as additional filters are needed to cater new antennas for multiple carrier aggregation (CA) channels. Antenna switches and antenna tuners are also expected to expand significantly, thanks to the 5G market growth, says a recent study from Yole Développement.
A view of RF front-end and how it relates to antennas at one end and RF transceiver at the other. Image courtesy of Qualcomm.
There are several flavors of 5G—mmWave, sub-6 GHz and IoT—and each cellular air interface operating on a specific frequency band demands a particular combination of RF components: filters, antenna tuners, low-noise amplifiers (LNAs), power amplifiers (PAs), etc.
Next, the highly diverse IoT designs are providing the key impetus in accelerating the evolution of RF front-end modules. It's worth mentioning here that 5G technology itself is becoming a key enabler for the IoT bandwagon by creating the long-distance versions such as NB-IoT and LTE-M. Then there is ubiquitous Wi-Fi radio and dedicated networks like LoRa and SigFox.
Not surprisingly, therefore, once a small club of RF chipmakers made up of Broadcom, Murata, Qorvo, Skyworks, and TDK is getting new entrants. Take Qualcomm, for instance, which has announced a joint venture with TDK to enhance its access to filters, duplexers, and antenna switches as well as module expertise. Qualcomm, the leading supplier of cellular application processor and modem chips, is expected to launch an RF front-end module for 5G in 2019.
NI's RF Liaisons
The critical role of RF connectivity in 5G and IoT designs is attracting other players in the ecosystem, and it's apparent from how companies from multiple disciplines are comparing notes to complement their RF offerings.
The EDA toolmaker Cadence Design Systems has joined hands with National Instruments (NI) to simplify the design and testing of RF chips and modules for automotive and wireless applications. NI has embedded its AXIEM 3D Planar EM software directly into Cadence's Virtuoso RF Solution to allow developers streamline the RF design.
The AXIEM software is solver technology for RF problems related to passive structures, transmission lines, large planar antennas, and patch arrays. On the other hand, the Virtuoso RF Solution allows engineers to design, implement and analyze the entire RF modules and chips from within the Cadence's Virtuoso custom IC design platform.
Earlier, in February 2018, NI teamed up with RF chipmaker Qorvo to test the first commercially-available RF front-end module (FEM) for 5G applications. Qorvo’s QM19000 front-end module combines a power amplifier and low-noise amplifier into a single package and is targeted for mobile devices operating on the 3.4 GHz band.
A glimpse of the evolution of RF front-end showing the gradual increase in the number of antennas. Image courtesy of Qorvo.
The 5G front-end module for LTE, LTE-A, and IoT designs was tested using a PXI system based on NI's vector signal transceiver (VST), and according to the two companies, it delivered the wide bandwidth required for the efficiently testing the 5G carrier-aggregation channels.
A lot more action is expected in the RF space later this year as the 5G party is just getting started. We will keep you posted on the new RF design resources as they are made available.