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OpenRF association hopes to kickstart 5G device sales

Some of the biggest vendors for RF front end (RFEE) chipsets said they're teaming up in order to make it easier for companies to build 5G devices.

Broadcom, Intel, MediaTek, Murata, Qorvo and Samsung said Thursday they would work together under the auspices of the new OpenRF association to "deliver an open framework that standardizes hardware and software interfaces without limiting innovation, while enabling total flexibility for 5G device Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to take advantage of time-to-market, cost, performance and supply chain benefits."

While the development will initially affect the smartphone industry, it could also have implications for the wider 5G marketplace. Operators are hoping that 5G capabilities eventually make their way into a wide range of gadgets, from drones to robots to industrial equipment, and the new association could help smooth the path for such efforts.

However, there's one big hitch: Qualcomm is not participating in the effort. The company – along with Skyworks, Qorvo, Broadcom and Murata – is one of the biggest vendors in the RFFE market, having set out a goal to acquire a 20% market share in the space by 2022.

"OpenRF is a non-exclusive environment with membership open to chipset, RF front end and OEM vendors and other industry-related companies," a spokesperson for the association wrote in response to questions from Light Reading about the absence of Qualcomm.

"Qualcomm doesn't participate because Qualcomm's strategy is to lock the OEMs into using Qualcomm RF modules with Qualcomm power supplies and Qualcomm modems," explained analyst Joe Madden with Mobile Experts. "Open interfaces run counter to Qualcomm's basic strategy. Frankly, I believe that OpenRF will make it possible for the other RF vendors to team with Mediatek or Samsung or Apple to achieve comparable performance at lower cost."

Interestingly, the principles driving the new OpenRF association in the 5G device realm are similar to the ones pushing open RAN technology on the networking side of 5G.

"In both cases, the interfaces between different parts will be somewhat standardized in order to make competition more fluid. In other words, both initiatives will allow the customer to replace one competitor with another more easily," Madden explained.

"But there are distinctions," he added. "In open RAN [radio access network], the operators are trying to create competition between vendors, because they have been stuck with an inability to replace a vendor. Over the years, the robust competition collapsed down to only two or three players in some Western markets. In the RFFE market, there's no shortage of competitors, so the OpenRF initiative is aimed at boosting the performance of various combinations of RF vendors and modem vendors."

The new OpenRF initiative has a number of broad goals, including the creation of a "set of core chipset and RF front end features and interfaces" that would allow device vendors to mix and match 5G basebands with RFFE products, as well as a common "hardware abstraction layer" that would improve the interface between modems and RFFE modules.

But the launch of the OpenRF initiative is also likely an effort by vendors to jumpstart momentum in the space. For example, market research firm Strategy Analytics reported in April that the market for RFFE components was flat in 2018 and 2019, and the firm predicted it would continue to remain flat in 2020.

The reason, according to some, may be due to the intricacies of the technologies involved. "Unless adequately addressed, the burden brought about by the complexities of implementing 5G can lead to several issues, including lengthy product development cycles, more expensive devices, and huge constraints on device industrial designs," David McQueen, an analyst with market research firm ABI Research, warned in July.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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