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The 5G Factor: RFFE Technology – An Essential for 5G Ecosystem Product Development and Innovation
by Shelly Kramer | July 21, 2022

In this episode of The 5G Factor, our webcast series here at Futurum Research where we discuss all things related to 5G and the IoT ecosystems, I’m joined by Christian Block Senior VP and GM of RF Front End (RFFE) for Qualcomm.

We kicked off our conversation by hearing a little about Christian’s back ground, his work in RF Front End, and what led him to Qualcomm Technologies.

Our conversation covered:

  • Why RF Front End (RFFE) technology is essential to 5G ecosystem product development and innovation.
  • A dive into Qualcomm Technologies RFFE solutions and the role they are playing in enabling handset capabilities.
  • A look at where is Qualcomm Technologies’ RFFE position now, and how Christian see’s Qualcomm’s differentiation in the market.
  • Christian’s thoughts on how he expects that differentiation to change moving forward.
  • The market prospects for Qualcomm Technolgoies RFFE proposition (i.e. the serviceable available market) and what that looks like.
  • Advancements in 5G for the automotive sector and the role Christian sees Qualcomm’s Qualcomm’s RFFE portfolio playing there.
  • The IoT sector and the opportunities ahead for Qualcomm’s RFFE portfolio there.
  • The 3rd gen expansion of the Wi-Fi Front-End Module (FEM) and how this portfolio differentiates Qualcomm Technologies’ RFFE solutions.
  • And the importance of Qualcomm performing filter technology for these FEMs.

We closed our conversation talking about the future and how Christian sees Qualcomm defining success over the next year and beyond. And finally, Christian shared one final thought about the RFFE market and what he believes it’s important to be thinking about — but you’ll have to watch or listen to the interview (or read the transcript below) to find out what that advice is.

This was a fantastic conversation and a deep dive into all things RFFE, the importance of RFFE’s role in 5G ecosystem product development and innovation and how Qualcomm Technologies is innovating in this space.

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Shelly Kramer: Hello, and welcome to this episode of The 5G Factor. I’m Shelly Kramer, the host of this show, and here at The 5G Factor, we explore all things related to 5G and the IoT ecosystems. And today I’m really excited because my guest is Christian Block, and he’s the senior vice president and GM of RF front-end for Qualcomm. Welcome Christian. Great to have you today.

Christian Block: Hi, nice to see you and nice to meet you.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. So let me talk you into, if I can, as we get started, to telling us a little bit about your role at Qualcomm and kind of what you and your team focus on. I’d love to know more.

Christian Block: Actually, my history in Qualcomm is quite new. I have been coming into Qualcomm five years ago. This was part of the acquisition of the TDK assets. I have been a leader in the RF front-end technologies and components in TDK that time, but I saw that this is not going to be a successful story for the future because we have been missing the capability of a system house like Qualcomm is. And I was asked by Qualcomm when they acquired the assets of my business, when I came over to run this as a general manager from the beginning and build up a business, which goes into the direction of multibillion, and to grow this business from a number five to potentially number one. And this was 5G having the capability of an end-to-end solution provider, having the RF front-end capabilities with all the component, know how and all the best features, and then combine that with the system. And that was for me a clear challenge. I wanted to take that on and I think this is what happened also then in the last five years. And yeah, maybe you want to explore it.

Shelly Kramer: That’s really exciting. And so five years in, tell us a little bit, if you would, about sort of your life pre-Qualcomm. What are some of the things in your career path that led you to where you are now?

Christian Block: Yeah, I think I was always interested to understand the technologies, bring them up. I started as an R&D engineer at the Siemens Corporate, and many, many years ago in Munich, and had a lot of research in microwave and all these kind of technologies, but what’s most important to me is develop not only products, but also ensure that this ends at the customers for a good value, and that I make a differentiation. And that started with cordless phone filters. This went into mobile phone filters. Then at first time ended in mobile phone modules. Our biggest customer at that time was Nokia. We were leading there. So with that move, I really went through all the generations from two, 3G, to 3G, and then 4G. But as I said before, I saw an end coming that I cannot really bring further differentiation as a standalone component guy.

I mean, always looking here to ensure that the customer is happy and gets best products and the best performance, but I saw a limitation here. That was my career before. Already 30 years now, in total, since I’m in Qualcomm in the industry. So I would say I’ve been seeing all the things in mobile from the beginning, when the first cordless phones happened and also mobile phones. And I think I made the whole transition to smartphones.

Shelly Kramer: That’s really interesting. I will say that I think there’s… I’m a big fan of having a job and a career where I get up every day excited about what it is I get to do, and who it is I get to work with and interact with. And the goal of making things better for customers, using technology to make life in general better. I feel like that’s what I get to spend my life doing. And it’s clear that’s what you’ve spent your career doing, so that’s really an interesting backstory. So now I want to talk a little bit about RF front-end technology. And we’re going to refer to that from now on as RFFE. So why is RFFE essential to 5G ecosystem product development and innovation?

Christian Block: Yeah, the MTEF capabilities which we need here is our RF front-end that you need to components tailored to the system. So as I have been before a component maker, I just work to the spec, and then you got something okay. But you want really optimize the phone in the right way. You have to tailor the components. You have to understand how you drive the power amplifier, how you drive the power tracking and how you drive antenna tunes and the filtering. So really orchestrated by the modem to antenna, you come to a system solution which makes a big difference, and makes you are really enjoying all the advantages. I talked about high data throughput, low size efficient cost, so that’s a critical one.

Shelly Kramer: That’s awesome. Some things that users may not even notice, but things that we actually expect today, right?

Christian Block: Yes. Correct.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about where you see Qualcomm Technologies’ RFFE position now, and how you see the differentiation in the market.

Christian Block: Yeah. When I started, we were clearly the number five, so low newcomer with a few hundred million revenues. But with our vision of going to 5G and already been preparing for that, we were able to run our own ecosystem really more than two antenna. And with having then the RF front-end components always tailored, as I said before, but also always using the best technologies to have really the best performance, that made us within five years, number one in the mobile space. So in the mobile handsets, we are clearly the number one, meanwhile, and we have been only one task now that we want to defend this position here. Not only, but go also forward.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well from number five to number one is no small accomplishment, Christian.

Christian Block: No, in five years, I think so.

Shelly Kramer: I’ll take it. I tell my teenagers all the time that I rarely ask a question that I don’t already know the answer to. And I believe I know the answer to this question. I’m going to ask it to you anyway. So what about moving forward? We’ve talked about Qualcomm’s differentiation in the market. What about moving forward? Do you expect that to change?

Christian Block: Not change in the strategy. So we want to go and continue to make… If you are successful, why you should change that?

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely.

Christian Block: Winning team and the winning strategy should never change. But there is part of the strategy which we had in mind from the beginning, but we have not been executing that. The first part of the strategy was really grow quickly, give all the value to the mobile of 5G. So in the mobile earphones, and in this industry to give the advantage. But having this strategy and showing that end-to-end makes a difference, there’s other industries and other segments we can really serve, and this is automotive, IoT connectivity. And that’s where the area is where we can still further grow and where we can bring even more value to the industry and to the customers.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. I think there’s lots of opportunities there. And on that front, let’s talk about some market prospects for Qualcomm Technologies’ RFFE. What are you thinking?

Christian Block: So, yes, I think this situation is very clear. We have been just successfully launching the first product for our next generation of connectivity, going to Wi-Fi 6E and then to Wi-Fi 7. This will bring another end-to-end advantage. So we use, again, our modem to antenna capabilities, and we are launching our new Wi-Fi FM modules. It combines with our excellent filter capability, and that makes a huge difference. So we think that’s a very growing area for us now, which we think we have a differentiation others may not have yet.

Shelly Kramer: I think that’s awesome. So one of the segments that I’m most interested in is the automotive sector. And I know Qualcomm’s made some exciting and significant inroads there. Let’s talk, if we would, for a minute about advancements in 5G for the automotive sector, and what role you see Qualcomm’s RFFE portfolio playing there.

Christian Block: Also here, the same strategy again. Successful strategy is do the end-to-end advantage, but for sure, the environment in automotive is a different one, is more complex. It is also different temperatures, you have to be aware of that. So all the reliability conditions are different ones, so have to adapt a little bit of technologies that you bring the success. For sure, the complexity is the same and we really likes the complexity to makes a difference here. So we are not afraid of complexity. We think that complexity brings us really value. Distance is a little bit that if you think of a mobile phone, then you go really globally with all the different frequencies in different countries. In automotive, for sure, you will be more locally, so it’s clear you will have to focus in on the countries where you are in Europe or US, and so this is a little different.

But the complexity, which you have to cover here, and also all the technology you have to develop here, especially in packaging, which is very critical so that you have a long lifetime reliability. You don’t want to have an issue there. That’s a big one, and this is really the complexity we drive and where we also have a lot of designs now. So our automotive pipeline, also for RF front-line, is quite loaded. And we see really success now, again, across the whole potential customers.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I think so, too. Very exciting times ahead for sure. What about the IoT sector? Let’s talk about some opportunities you might see there.

Christian Block: Also here, we think that also here’s the infrastructure and we know all about that. Hey, if it comes to the small environments, IoT where you would need Wi-Fi access at home, understanding also the situation which we have behind us now the last two years, and which also changing our life. So IoT is a very important segment for us as well. Let’s be clear. Shelly, you at home, I’m at home. So we want to have also connection here at home. If you are here with a new Wi-Fi, it’s not only that you want to have this in your mobile phone.

So you want to have that also capability at home, and you want to have fast data connections. You want to be connected. You want to have your meetings without any disruptions. So you want to still stream your movies. You want to do everything. That’s very critical. That’s the infrastructure at your home is upgraded.

And that’s one area. For sure, I think then on the broader infrastructure, serving also then the infrastructure which brings you the frequencies is also important. So there’s a lot of elements here where our technology can make a difference. Again, if it’s in the Wi-Fi space or in the mobile space. But important is also now we have to talk about coexistence in the future. So it’s not only that you have Wi-Fi alone, you want to have the cellular coexistence, same time. So this drives complexity again. Then you have the capability that you can mobile and Wi-Fi in the same area.

Shelly Kramer: Right. Absolutely. I think about modems as sort of the invisible thing that drives everything. And also, security is a huge part of modem functionality, right? But modems, most of us don’t think about where that modem is tucked away that is providing everything we need, but it is incredibly important, so absolutely. I’d love to know more, if you will indulge me, about the third gen expansion of the Wi-Fi front-end module. How does this portfolio differentiate Qualcomm Technologies’ RFFE solutions?

Christian Block: There’s a lot of elements here which will make a change. And one of the change is that you will see a nice upgrade in data speed. Huge, I have to say. That’s very important that you have that. We see, for example, less than two milliseconds of latency, you see 50% of lower than a previous generation in terms of power, so that’s also important. That’s a lot of savings which is necessary, and remember, we talk all about energy and energy saving. And if you have that in your environment, in the phones or in the infrastructure, and you have huge power savings, that’s a lot of talk what we see here now, and that makes the customer thrilled.

And I think they cannot wait to go more quickly to Wi-Fi 7 as they start now with 6E. So I see really the story here that we can make a huge differentiation here. And for sure, as I said before, we have the capability also to have the coexistence with a mobile phone. So we can have a coexistence here with the 5G Sub-6, together with the Wi-Fi, and we guarantee best connection all the time, the best link. Again, two millisecond latency is a lot.

Shelly Kramer: Well, and combine that with energy savings, it’s a no-brainer, right? It’s a win all the way around.

Christian Block: Yes. Correct.

Shelly Kramer: So can you elaborate for me a little on the importance of Qualcomm performing filter technology for these Wi-Fi front-end modules?

Christian Block: Yeah. That’s a critical one. And I like this question because we had a lot of discussions with our customers, how critical the filter technologies is. And that has been a big, big effort in the last few years to bring up all the technologies. And I would say Qualcomm is the company that has the broadest portfolio in filter technology, and in a leading form, I have to say. Many guys have filter technology, but really in a leading form that you have loss, insertion loss, highest intonation, so that you have the best filter functionality for all the frequencies, from really like 600 megahertz up to seven gigahertz, this is what we are. And for this, we have been developing filter technologies. One is called QSAW, which we use for everything below three gigahertz. And then we have been developing our new QBAW, which makes a differentiation for the higher frequencies. And these kind of two technologies are key enabler in this environment. This makes it really that we can run certain things concurrently, which has not been possible before.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Very interesting. So I want to talk a little bit about the future. I know that Qualcomm is all about innovation and diversification and taking on big challenges and solving big problems. How do you see Qualcomm defining success over the next year or the next couple of years?

Christian Block: Yeah. I have some visions here I’m working on. And I think that our story will take long, for sure. This is not a short story. At least, I have a vision in the next five years, for sure. What comes beyond, there’s ideas, but I have the vision that we really have so many things to be done in this space of, not only 5G, I see us already digging into what has to be done in 6G. So you can imagine such a development takes a lot of time. Many people talked about 4G and what 4G can still bring, while we already have been starting to work on 5G well ahead. That’s very critical.

Qualcomm is a company, as you may know, with a lot of innovation generating IP, like nobody. We start really with this new technologies 10 years ahead. Can you imagine 10 to five years ahead? When you see first time products, all the R&D engineering is already busy. And we do that also in all the elements of the RF front-end already. And we want to be prepared the first one to drive 6G. When everything is clear, which is a final standards, what is the right frequencies, we want to be impressive to the world that we again are the first one to be ready.

Shelly Kramer: I think there’s never anything wrong with being the first one to be ready, right? Okay, Christian Block, here’s one for you. If you were to leave our audience with just one final thought about the RFFE market, and what is important to be thinking about, what would that be?

Christian Block: I have to say that there is a clear thing what drives me every night and day, what should be done in the future. And what I’m thinking is we have to do more to connect even more people to convenience. What I see in the next years to come, I see more and more people getting, for sure, older, need also connection, need a good life. And I’m thinking of what can we do here to make their life even better and that what can here 5G do, 6G do, or what can new technology like sensors or all the things can do to make the life of all the people better? So that’s a critical one, which is in my mind. So you must know first, I think of what the technology could be good for, also the RF front-end. And then I think about that, how to make that happen.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. So have a vision. Have a vision, work on a strategy, tap the right partners to work with to bring that vision to life. And I’ve spent my life as a strategist. So that’s always how I think about next steps forward, right?

Christian Block: That’s the best way to have a… I have a team, a big team of 5,000 people with a lot of engineers. If you give them the vision where to go, they run for life. They really do [inaudible], if you have them believing what you’re doing and they see then shortly after all the times the success, that is then also the right mentality, which you need to really impress the world.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Vision, strategy, and a bunch of smart people dedicated to making great things happen, right? That’s the magic equation for success. Well, Christian Block, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I very much look forward to watching Qualcomm Technologies and RFFE’s role in 5G ecosystem product development and innovation, and 6G and 7G and all the things that are ahead. And I will very much be keeping my eye on you and your team and looking for great things ahead.

Christian Block: Shelly, thank you so much that I had the opportunity to share my thoughts, and yeah, it would be good to see you again. And let us talk in a few years where we are. I’m pretty sure we have been moving a lot and would be nice to talk again.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. And you know what? I can promise you, we won’t wait three years.

Christian Block: Perfect.

Shelly Kramer: All right. All right. And to our listening audience, thank you so much for joining us. And that is a wrap for this show. We’ll see you next time.

Christian Block: See you. Thank you. Bye.

About the Author

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”