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Qualcomm completes acquisition of RF front-end business, bolstering its 5G leadership

Qualcomm's full acquisition of RF360, a joint venture with TDK Electronics, means it's now the only company that can deliver 5G technology on a system level, enabling development that no other company can achieve, executives from the chipmaker have claimed.

At a launch event in Munich, Cristiano Amon, CEO of Qualcomm, said that by taking control of every aspect of its Snapdragon 5G antenna-to-modem products, the company can outperform all of its competitors and make developments that it can only do when all means of production are controlled by the same company.

The fruit of the acquisition is RF360's radio frequency front-end (RFFE) technology, which completes the company's portfolio of 5G components, allowing it to create fully end-to-end service-level products for use in the next generation of 5G devices.

RFFE is essential for 5G devices, processesing the mountain of data the antennas receive and then passing it on to the modem. With more antennas come more processes in the form of radio frequency (RF) chains, which can slow the transmission of data, which is why the evolution of RFFE is of vital importance if we want to get the most out of the 5G network, the company said.

"Because we have everything in-house now ... we can design things as a system," said Amon.

For example, he said, when 5G starts to transmit at the millimetre wave (mmWave) frequency it will lead to higher RF waves emitted by a person's device such as a smartphone.

When held to an ear, it's important phones keep RF emissions at safe levels while optimising the transmission power to deliver good speeds and so when the phone is in different positions, the transmission powers must be altered to protect the user from harmful emissions.

"Individual components don't have the ability to do something like Qualcomm has done in one practical feature," said Amon. "We have this technology called Smart Transmit. We have the ability at the system level to understand if [holding a phone in a particular position] is close to the skin or close to a different object."

With this information, Qualcomm systems can redirect transmissions to a different antenna on the phone – one positioned away from an object. "It could be the difference between coverage and no coverage," he added.

RFFE completes Qualcomm's portfolio of 5G components and is a hugely important piece in the puzzle. "Imagining a phone without RF front-end is like imagining a car without transmission and wheels," the company said in a presentation. "You might have the best engine and the best audio system, but you're not going to get anywhere."

Qualcomm paid $3.1 billion (£2.48 billion) to complete the acquisition of the remaining holdings, which were valued at $1.15 billion (£922 million) in August 2019.

The company said the acquisition demonstrates its commitment to Europe by keeping research and development of RFFE in Munich.

"Europe is the centre for all our RF front-end and global activities, so you should know roughly 40% of our employees are in Europe, 30% of them are in Munich so it's a great testimony here that the centre of RF is here in Munich," said Cristian Block, SVP and GM of RFFE at Qualcomm.

Amon said he firmly believes the acquisition and the completion of Qualcomm's portfolio will allow it to innovate further with 5G and deliver on the promise of the technology.

"You used to hear Qualcomm talk about modem technology focus on the digital market and thinking about the modem as a chip and how much you could connect to the radio waves ... we're past that point," he said. "5G requires innovation on the journey to basically build our end-to-end system for RF front-end.

"We took a number of steps to build what we think is the world's best RF front-end team so that we can actually design things as a system, the way technology was invented.

"And with that, we can have with the system integrated approach, we can bring higher performance, lower cost, scale 5G faster through all the different industries and build on the promise of 5G."

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