Inside smartphones, a mosaic of components link the wireless modem, which translates everything from video to text messages into radio signals, to the antenna that broadcasts those signals and receives others. And for years, chip makers were comfortable selling a few pieces of that puzzle.
But as wireless communications have grown more complex, that has changed. One example is Qualcomm, which has been slowly stockpiling parts that can be used in the front end of smartphones and other devices. And on Thursday, the San Diego-based company continued down that path.
Qualcomm finally launched its joint venture with TDK, one that will make filters that stop interference from leaking into the front end. As wireless communications break into higher frequency bands, that task has become increasingly difficult and smartphone makers have been forced to install more filters into their front ends.
Qualcomm revealed the new company, RF360 Holdings, a little over a year ago. The world’s largest maker of mobile chips said that it would pay around $3 billion over the next three years for TDK’s filter patents and manufacturing. Qualcomm said it would control 51% of the venture and have the option to purchase TDK’s share after 30 months.
For Cristiano Amon, executive vice president of Qualcomm’s research arm, the timing of the joint venture is an advantage. He said in a statement that manufacturers need filters to help wrestle with over 65 frequency bands. And that number is only rising with the dawn 5G communications and carrier aggregation, which links frequency bands together to improve download speeds.
RF360 Holdings will primarily make surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters. But it will also dive into temperature-compensated surface acoustic wave (TC-SAW) and bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filters, which have lower insertion losses and create less distortion. Those qualities make them better at shutting out interference.
The company will also focus on packaging the filters into modules with power amplifiers, antenna switches, antenna matching tuners, and envelope trackers. With that level of integration, the company said that it would be “positioned to design and supply products with end-to-end performance and global scale from the modem [to the] transceiver all the way to the antenna.”
Amon said that the proliferation of radio bands is “driving manufacturers of wireless solutions to higher levels of miniaturization, integration and performance” in sensors, drones, and automobiles.
But Qualcomm is not the only company to beef up its filter manufacturing. Skyworks Solutions completed a $225 million deal last year to acquire Panasonic’s filter division, including its SAW and TC-SAW patents. Qorvo – which champions the close integration of its amplifiers, filters, and switches – has increased BAW filter production by over ten times since 2010.
Incorporated in Singapore, RF360 Holdings will be headquartered in Munich, Germany. Christian Block, the former chief technology officer of Epcos and general manager of TDK’s SAW business, has been promoted to Qualcomm’s senior vice president of RF Front Ends, which includes RF360 Holdings.