Consumers have learned to count on mobile device makers for a steady diet of must-have new features: higher quality cameras, sharper displays, more powerful processors, and longer lasting batteries. But as the smartphone market matures, some device makers are starting to focus on improvements that may be less obvious to the end user. Front end radios, power amplifiers and antennas are a growing priority for device makers who recognize that the next must-have feature for consumers may be portability, or the ability to take a device from one carrier to another.
“Right now where the money is being spent is antenna filters, RF filters, antenna switches etc.,” said Andrew Rassweiler, who directs the cost benchmarking/teardown service at IHS iSuppli. Manufacturers are starting to invest more in RF solutions in order to accommodate more frequency bands.
“It almost seems like overkill – to some it’s counterintuitive,” Rassweiler said. “If one carrier needs these five bands and this other carriers needs five different bands why would you build one device with ten bands, because now you’re overspending on support that isn’t needed at any given time.” But Rassweiler believes it’s a good investment, especially from the end user perspective. As time goes on, users may want to switch service providers, and that’s when portability becomes valuable. “If you want to take a phone and unlock it and eventually take it to another carrier, you’ll need to have the one-size-fits-all interface,” said Rassweiler.
All four of the major U.S. carriers are now offering no-contract plans, and those plans attracted significantly more new customers than did contract plans during 2013. Without contracts, subscribers will find it much easier to move to a different carrier for a better deal – especially if they can take their phone with them.
The most portable smartphone to hit the market to date is Google’s Nexus 5, which supports LTE on AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Among tablets, the iPad Air wins for portability, with support for an unprecedented number of LTE bands.
Accommodating more bands means integrating front end radios with the device’s baseband and RF transceivers. Qualcomm, the leading maker of cellular basebands, expanded its offering this year to include its own front end solution, called the RF360. Some analysts saw Qualcomm’s move as a threat to the chipmakers who specialize in radios: Skyworks, Avago, Triquint and RF Micro Devices.
Separate from the radios are the phone’s antennas, made by companies like Galtronics and Ethertonics. “There are up to 7 antennas in a smartphone and it is a big challenge to pack it all into a small space and secure stable communication without interference across a broad band of frequencies,” said Galtronics CEO Ephraim Ulmer.
Ulmer sees carrier aggregation as an important emerging trend, as large operators combine different spectrum bands and smaller players team up to combine their spectrum. Broadband antennas are key to successful aggregation of different frequency bands. Galtronics and its competitors are working to create antennas that are more powerful and yet more discrete, as smartphone design becomes increasingly sophisticated. Consumers don’t want to see their antennas or radios, but they will definitely value the enhanced connectivity these components provide.