IP Theft & RF BAW Filters

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The New York Times recently reported on another troubling example of IP theft / transfer from strategically important US technologies companies, in this particular case to a bogus state-owned Chinese RFFE (Radio Frequency Front-End) company called ROFS Microsystem, unfortunately closely affiliated with the venerated Tianjin University (established in 1895).  See:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/20/technology/6-chinese-men-indicted-in-theft-of-code-from-us-tech-companies.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

This reporting includes the following profound misunderstanding of the underlying RFFE technology:

“The new indictment contends that Mr. Hao Zhang, 36, a professor at Tianjin University, was one of six men who created a network as they studied and later worked in the United States, taking jobs at two American technology companies, Avago Technologies and Skyworks Solutions, that make a type of chip critical to cellphones.

The chip is popularly known as a filter, which is used for acoustics in mobile telephones (bold emphasis added by this blogger); while the parts are small, the market for them worldwide is worth well more than $1 billion a year. According to the charges, the men took the firms’ technology back to Tianjin University, created a joint venture company with the university to produce the chips and soon were selling them both to the Chinese military and to commercial customers.”

The reporting from www.cio.com is far more technically accurate:

“The six are charged with stealing thin-Film Bulk Acoustic Resonator (FBAR) technology used in mobile phones from two U.S. companies, according to a DOJ (Department of Justice) press release.  FBAR technology devices filter incoming and outgoing wireless signals so that a mobile phone only receives and transmits the specific communications intended by the user.  In addition to consumer applications, FBAR is used in several military and communications technologies.”

See: http://www.cio.com/article/2924273/six-china-residents-charged-with-stealing-us-mobile-phone-technology.html

What is this seemingly obscure FBAR technology and why does it matter?

How could FBAR filters constitute a $1B global market?

FBAR / BAW (Bulk Acoustic Wave) filter ICs have absolutely nothing to do with more familiar audio band acoustics; they are precision Radio Frequency (RF) filter devices critical for FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) duplexer filtering and 4G LTE channel selection/discrimination filtering used in all 4G smartphones (such as the iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S6) and “phablets” (such as the iPhone 6 Plus), the units sales of which are forecasted to be 1.6 billion units in 2015 (implying the average sales price for FBAR / BAW filters is about $0.60 each).  The forecasted units sales of smartphones (including phablets) in 2020 is staggering 3.5 billion units, by far the largest single consumer product market segment.  Assuming an average selling price of $0.50 in 2020, the FBAR / BAW total available market (TAM) for the cellphone market segment alone is worth an estimated $1.75B; the forecasted unit and dollar TAM for wireless IoT/IoE devices is even larger in 2020.

In simple terms, BAW filters, and strongly related SAW (Surface Acoustic Wave) filter ICs, are fundamental to all contemporary smartphone radio frequency front ends (RFFEs).  Paraphrasing from Wikipedia:

“FBAR BAW devices are used as precision electronic filter devices are based on the physical transduction of radio frequency acoustic waves. The transduction from electric energy to mechanical energy is accomplished by the use of piezoelectric nanomaterials.

Electronic radio frequency (RF) devices employing BAWs normally use one or more interdigital transducers (IDTs) to convert electrical signals to RF acoustic waves (and electrical signals to >1 GHz RF acoustical waves) by exploiting the piezoelectric effect of certain nanomaterials (including quartz, lithium niobate, lithium tantalate, and lanthanum gallium silicate).  BAW and SAW devices are fabricated in foundries using precision photolithography, the fundamental process used in the manufacture of silicon (as well as so-called III-V compound semiconductor including GaAs, InGaP, SiGe and GaN) integrated circuits.

Numerous BAW (and SAW filters) are universally used in 3G and 4G smartphone RFFE modules, and provide significant advantages in performance, cost, and size over other filter technologies such as quartz crystals (based on bulk waves), LC filters, and waveguide filters.”

The fundamental misconception of the importance of precision bulk and surface acoustic wave Radio Frequency filters in a publication as prominent as the New York Times is a clear indication of the widespread lack of understanding of the criticality of RF front-ends in mobile broadband applications.  EJL Wireless Research will be publishing two research reports on RFFE technology (qualitative) and global demand (quantitative) in the summer of 2015.