Big news out of San Diego’s Peregrine Semiconductor Tuesday morning: a much-needed, highly anticipated solution to the problem of fragmented Radio Frequency Front End (RFFE) chips in cellular technology has arrived in the UltraCMOS Global 1 Integrated System.
Peregrine (Nasdaq: PSMI) found a way to use RF silicon on insulator (SOI) in the new technology, as opposed to gallium arsenide (GaAs), but without sacrificing the battery efficiency that typically drops in complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) power amplifiers (PAs).
Peregrine CEO Jim Cable said the advancement in mobile components has several benefits that could transform the industry.
“What we’re really talking about in this announcement is we now have demonstrated this PA has the same efficiency as the best gallium arsenide PAs, and so now the idea of doing this and getting the benefit of the integration and not paying the penalty of battery drainage is huge,” Cable said.
The reconfigurable RFFE chip, which includes the previously grouped post-PA switch, antenna switch and antenna tuner, now also contains the multimode multiband power amplifier in the same chip thanks to UltraCMOS Global 1 system, making it possible to sell just one stock-keeping unit (SKU) of devices utilizing this technology, Cable said.
“In order to support LTE worldwide, if you really want to have a true world phone, you need like 30 bands,” he said. “And so a cellphone manufacturer says 'How do I deal with this if I want kind of a world phone — do I make one phone that supports 30 bands, or do I make a phone that works in the U.S. and can support a little bit of roaming, and make one set for Europe that can support a little bit of roaming, one for Asia?' And so that’s what they’re doing. So to give an example, the iPhone 5 had two SKUs, two different versions; the iPhone 5s and 5c have at least six.”
Cable said all of these different versions mean it’s five times as much work to prove the phone works, not to mention the supply chain issue of having to project sales in each market without being able to sell undersold versions from one geographic area anywhere else.
For the first time, UltraCMOS Global 1 makes it possible for 4G LTE platform providers to sell a single-SKU design around the world.
Though the product hasn’t hit the market yet — with hardware demos at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February, platform integration later in 2014, and volume production expected in 2015 — Cable said testers’ reactions to the product have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Frankly, the reaction of people who have measured our parts has been ... they’re stunned,” Cable said. “It’s just so much better than anything else they’ve seen. We had one customer, in fact, that thought somehow we had this bogus demo, so he actually put his finger on the chip to make sure it was getting hot, because he just didn’t believe it.”
Last year Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) announced its RF360 concept, a product with the same goal of allowing for a single SKU, but Cable said the solution is different, with four chips in a set as opposed to a single chip, and he said he’s glad they’ll be competitors.
“My analyst investors came to me and said, ‘Well, that means Qualcomm’s going to be your competitor!’” Cable said. “Right now we don’t compete with them … but what Qualcomm is saying is that everything we’ve been saying for the last 20 years is right. So it’s perfect, it’s a great thing for us.”
This vision of a single chip has been on Peregrine’s horizon since the company’s inception nearly 25 years ago, though Cable said the notion of it got them “laughed out of everywhere.”
Now faced with its reality, industry leaders are taking notice.
“For years, RF engineers have been looking for an integrated, CMOS RF front-end offering that performs as well as GaAs for mobile devices,” said Joe Madden, founder and principal analyst at Mobile Experts, in a statement.
“Peregrine’s UltraCMOS technology has demonstrated GaAs-level efficiency performance at high power, which could be a game-changer.”
Peregrine's stock slid 16 percent Tuesday after a disappointing earnings report. The company reported a net loss of $6.8 million, or 21 cents per share, for the fourth quarter, and a net loss of $4.1 million, or 13 cents per share, for the 2013 fiscal year.