While business in automotive is experiencing an unanticipated slowdown, NXP finds its RF front-ends in high demand.
In the shadow of its disappointing Q1 results, NXP also released two positive notes. In April, the company made public a collaboration with Murata to deliver the industry’s first RF front-end modules designed with the latest Wi-Fi 6 standards. Followed in May by an announcement that these very modules have been designed into the Xiaomi Mi 10 5G smartphone.
NXP’s RF front-end solutions are based on silicon-germanium (SiGe). This technology has the advantage over CMOS that it enables a higher output power at radio frequencies, at the same cost base. Compared to silicon-on-insulator, another alternative, it allows for a higher output power level, combined with better power efficiency.
While NXP’s automotive activities are struggling as the corona pandemic forced car manufacturers and their suppliers to halt operations, its SiGe business is booming. The ICN8 fab in Nijmegen and the jointly owned SSMC factory in Singapore are producing silicon-germanium chips at full throttle. “Our customers are pulling them out of our hands,” says Rob Hoeben, Senior Director of Marketing for the product line Smart Antenna Solutions (SAS) within NXP’s business line Radio Power.
SAS delivers integrated RF front-ends for mobile and wireless infrastructures. “We’re NXP’s Qubic center for product creations – Qubic being our SiGe process technology,” states Hoeben. “We’re focusing on mobile WLAN and 5G – both sub-6 GHz and mm-wave. There lies SiGe’s sweet spot: everything RF or mm-wave below 1 or 2 W output power.”
In a mobile handset application, NXP’s front-end IC links the antenna to the WLAN system-on-chip. “It contains a low-noise amplifier for the receive path, to minimize the noise and optimize the sensitivity in the rest of the chain,” explains Hoeben. “In the transmit path, it delivers that extra output power you can’t get with CMOS. We can put the ICs in a small discrete QFN housing, for use very close to the antenna, in a complete front-end module, or customers can buy them as chip-scale packages and integrate them with a third-party SOC into a system-in-package.”
According to Hoeben, NXP is the world’s number one front-end supplier for Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. “Wi-Fi 6 connects more users and employs an upgraded modulation technique, which means a huge increase in data rate per user and better battery performance with the same data rate. 6E adds to that 1.2 GHz of extra spectrum at the top end of the 5 GHz band, ie from 6-7.2 GHz. That’s good news for Wi-Fi and perfect for SiGe since this technology allows for making a broadband front-end that performs equally well across the entire range from 5-7 GHz. Customers can take a Wi-Fi chip and set it to 5 or 6 GHz, put our IC in front of it and it will work independently of the selected frequency. With a technology like GaAs, which is much more narrow banded, you need multiple power amplifiers – obviously, a much more expensive solution.”
Without giving exact numbers, Hoeben can divulge that NXP is selling hundreds of millions of RF front-end ICs in the mobile space. “The big companies make 100 million handsets of each of their models, all having three of our chips inside. So one such customer alone represents 300 million units.”
In 5G, the first bands deployed are sub-6 GHz. These basically cover the same frequencies as 4G but with a better modulation technique, resulting in higher data rates. “With SiGe, we have a play in base stations for sub-6 GHz,” Hoeben points out. “Such base stations not only contain GaN or LDMOS power amplifiers, but also pre-drivers, LNAs and gain blocks – typical products made in SiGe, in Qubic. For mm-wave – 26, 28 and 39 GHz – we’re developing beam-forming ICs, which are the front-ends of those antennas.”
Although the numbers aren’t comparable to the mobile space, 5G is an equally important target area for NXP’s SiGe efforts. “Sub-6 GHz is currently deploying very rapidly in China, and in Europe, it’s taking off as well,” Hoeben notes. “In North America, where sub-6 GHz spectrum is scarce, we’re seeing the first mm-wave deployments, with fixed wireless access in regions without cable or fiberglass as a first real commercial use case.”