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Interview: Bob Van Buskirk, President of RFMD's Multi-Market Products Group

Sept. 16, 2011
Interview by Nancy Friedrich
NF: Among all of the technology areas in which RFMD plays, you wanted this interview to focus on WiFi. Can you explain why? BV: Wireless-local-area-networking (WLAN or WiFi) technology has steadily grown throughout the past two decades, with accelerating growth in the last two years. Currently, market researchers are predicting that WiFi component shipments in 2011 will surpass one billion units globally. As seamless connectivity becomes a feature sought after by consumers and businesses, WiFi connections will continue to flourish in mobile and consumer-electronics products. We continue to expand our product portfolio within this market by introducing highly integrated products developed to meet the needs of today's WiFi standards, as well as the standards of tomorrow (i.e., IEEE 802.11p, 802.11ac, 802.11ad, and 802.22).

NF: What end-market segments does RFMD see as having the most significant potential for growth in the next two to three years?
BV: Embedded WiFi is becoming the norm for all types of electronic devices. Two years ago, WiFi was prevalent in laptops, access points, and routers. Today, it is incorporated into everything from mobile phones, tablets, and e-readers to TVs, gaming consoles, and set-top boxes. This embedded WiFi trend does not appear to be slowing anytime soon. In fact, we see significant expansion in mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. There is also growth in our consumer-premiseequipment (CPE) market, where carriers are using WiFi as a way to migrate the increasing data streams from the 3G and 4G cellular networks as a backhaul alternative.

Along with this explosive growth in WiFi embedded applications, we see even more growth opportunities on the horizon. They include the following: automotive applications, such as infotainment and diagnostics; "Super WiFi" (a technology targeting the unused white-space bands from the digital TV spectrum); and smart-energy home-area-network (HAN) applications like thermostats, meters, and appliances.

NF: What are the key trends within each WiFi end market that drive your product development?
BV: Wireless connectivity is permeating nearly every imaginable end market and industry. With this trend, we see a push toward dual-band WiFi operating in the 2.5- and 5-GHz frequency bands. This trendalong with overall product cost reductionscontinues to push us toward higher levels of integration. It also is driving us to develop smaller products with higher levels of RF integration.

In addition, the transmit and receive range requirements and data-throughput demands are increasing, which drives higher power levels and increased linearity levels. With the substantial market growth realized in the WiFi industry, our volumes have consistently increased. These volume increases continue to push us to improve product yields and efficient manufacturing processes in order to keep pace with production volume requirements.

NF: Semiconductor suppliers must tailor their WiFi products to each application according to key parameters, such as power, size, and efficiency. Within high-growth end-market segments, what key performance attributes are customers demanding?
BV: Applications in the high-growth WiFi markets, such as the CPE, mobile PC/tablet, and smartphone segments, are driving us to develop products with higher linearity (to extend the RF performance range) and improved product efficiencies (more transmit and receive channels, thereby accommodating more users). WiFi product designs also are calling for components with dual-band operating capability, which offer consumers maximum usability and flexibility within a WiFi network.

NF: The IEEE 802.11 WiFi standard continues to evolve and has now fully adopted the 802.11n standard, with 802.11ac soon to be introduced. What future trends do you see regarding this standard's evolution within the WiFi end market?
BV: The WiFi standard continuously evolves. The new standardsIEEE 802.11ac and 802.11ad (802.11ad is the 60-GHz standard)will provide increased data rates. In doing so, they will allow applications that require large file transfers, such as computer-aided-design (CAD) drawings, media uploading from digital cameras, or multiple, simultaneous high-definition data streaming.

Currently, IEEE 802.11n products are widely available commercially and continue to flood the market. In large part, they are replacing the older-generation 802.11a/g standard, which provided slower data rates and less robust capability. While there are some prototype WiFi product applications in development for 802.11ac products, we do not expect these products to become commercially available until ratification of the standard is completed. We anticipate that the first commercially available 802.11ac products will be introduced around 2013.

NF: During the past decade, WiFi has experienced two major growth driversthe first with PCs and notebooks and the second with smartphones and tablets. What will be the next major driver for WiFi?
BV: As data-rate demands increase and mobile devices become more efficient, secure, and reliable, WiFi solutions will grow in enterprise-infrastructure and cellular-carrier backhaul applications. There is increasing acceptance and demand for mobility in business. More companies are looking for and implementing WiFi as they recognize the cost savings associated with WiFi over incumbent wired solutions. Healthcare is just one example of a growing market segment that has aggressively embraced WiFi in order to lower costs.

Another driver, which I mentioned previously, is the need for cellular carriers to increase connectivity. As consumers and businesses use and transfer more data, 3G and 4G capacity becomes limited. Carriers will increasingly use WiFi for their network backhaul to offset these capacity constraints. They have already begun rolling out WiFi backhaul networks using microcells. We expect this trend to escalate as capacity continues to strain the carrier networkand as we see more markets, such as healthcare, shift toward wireless network solutions.

NF: What WiFi product application trends do you see in the automotive market segment?
BV: WiFi use remains a growing trend in the automotive industry. It is already employed in supply-chain management (RFID, transportation logistics, and automotive sensors), and we see that trend increasing.

Consumer demand for flexibility of mobility between home and the automobile will require the auto industry to expand its integration of WiFi applications in new car designs. Cars will become data centers with music, videos, and more. This data will be downloaded from home computers and mobile devices, giving consumers the mobility, security, and control they desire.

NF: WiFi for the "Internet of Things" (IoT) is finally becoming a reality. WiFi will be used not only for data communication, but also for monitoring and control functions. How do you see the IoT changing your product development? And what new markets do you see opening up due to this trend?
BV: In the near future, common, everyday things like refrigerators, light fixtures, air conditioners, and more will be connected via WiFi. As smartphones drove the adoption of WiFi for its second wave of use, we believe that the IoT will drive the next wave. This development will bring a plethora of WiFi application opportunities. The variety of applications will create the need for products of different sizes, power-consumption levels, and performance requirements. Home-automation and control devices within the Internet cloud using WiFi Direct and Smart Energy Profile 2.0 will set critical performance drivers for future IoT applications.

NF: With the recent explosive attach rates in commercial electronics, how will WiFi potentially exist within the home-area network?
BV: As the IoT develops and gains momentum, more consumer products will contain WiFi capability. WiFi will permeate household appliances and electronics. This in-home monitoring, streaming, and control will increase the need for higher bandwidths, a wider range of coverage, and lower power consumption at the WiFi RF component level.

NF: Integration levels continue to increase in all electronics segments. With WiFi module implementation in commercial electronics, machine-to-machine (M2M), white goods, and mobile/embedded applications, is there a shift toward smaller-footprint implementations for WiFi solutions?
BV: There is a continuous trend toward higher integration and increased performance in a smaller product footprint across all of the end markets we serve, including WiFi. Due to this momentum, the WiFi market is trending toward a chip-on-board (CoB) solution, where the WiFi RF component is mounted directly to the printed-circuit board (PCB) in a variety of product applications. We see this trend continuing for most of the market applications in WiFi.

NF: In WiFi networks, dual-band capability enables operation at 5 GHz (IEEE 802.11a) and 2.4 GHz (IEEE 802.11b/g/n) with one RF componentcommonly called 802.11n. Do you see this becoming the de-facto standard moving forward? If so, what challenges does this bring to your product designs?
BV: We see dual-band IEEE 802.11n as the main architecture in the WiFi market for the next few years. This capability allows for more consumer flexibility while expanding the data-rate handling in support of evolving applications, such as video streaming and other higher-data-rate requirements. Therefore, we see this trend continuing until other more advanced technologies (or newer, evolved standards, such as IEEE 802.11ac or 802.11ad) alter the trend.

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