In the News - 2013
New Foundry Gold Rush: RF SOI
About every five years or so, a new and hot market emerges in the specialty foundry business that resembles a frenetic gold rush.
The last big gold rush occurred around 2008, when more than a dozen foundries jumped into the bipolar-CMOS-DMOS (BCD) market to capitalize on the booming power-management sector. Now, the next gold rush is centering on an emerging technology-the radio frequency (RF) silicon-on-insulator (SOI) market.
Today, IBM, STMicroelectronics and TowerJazz offer RF SOI foundry processes for the merchant market. Foundries are jumping on the RF SOI bandwagon amid a boom for select parts, particularly within the RF front-end for the latest smartphones and tablets. Typically, the RF front-end consists of power amplifiers (PAs), RF switches, tunable capacitors and filters. Generally, the PA and switch are based on gallium arsenide (GaAs), while the tunable capacitors and filters use various technologies.
Apple to drive SOI?
The fact that Apple and other OEMs have adopted SOS and RF SOI for the RF switch has given the technology some credence. It also has caused a stampede of foundry players looking to enter the RF SOI sweepstakes.
Now, with help from the foundries, RF chipmakers are looking to displace SOS-based switches with traditional and less-expensive RF SOI technology. "RF switches are typically based on GaAs pHEMT, SOS and SOI, with SOI gaining more and more market share away from the other and more expensive technologies," said Marco Racanelli, senior vice president and general manager at TowerJazz.
Besides the RF switch, the next big market for RF SOI and SOS could be the PA, with Apple emerging as the possible driving force.
"For the PA, SiGe BiCMOS has strong market share in WiFi, while GaAs HBT has strong market share in cellular. RF CMOS is relegated to the very low-end 2G/2.5G cellular space," TowerJazz' Racanelli said. "SOI for the PA is only in R&D and may not deliver the best performance by itself. But combined with switches and other functions, (SOI-based PAs) could become relevant as new architectures are adopted. Our view is that SiGe has the best tradeoff in performance. The cost structure is closer to CMOS/SOI. SiGe is likely to gain more ground in the future."