RF MEMS to explode, solve phone antenna problems

September 1, 2010 – Radio frequency (RF) MEMS technology is poised for a bit surge in 2010-2011, just in time to maybe help Apple solve a vexing problem with its iPhone.

Reported problems with Apple’s iPhone 4 reception, blamed on a bad antenna/design, caught a lot of attention this summer (which Apple denies but sells a hardware "bumper" to fix). Several technologies could fix antenna issues, e.g. silicon-on-sapphire field-effect transistors (FET) and barium/strontium/titanate (BST) varactors, notes Jérémie Bouchaud, principal analyst for MEMS and sensors at iSuppli — but RF MEMS technology including switchers and varactors perform better in terms of insertion loss. They also can be used for impedance matching of the power amplifier.

Global RF MEMS forecast. (Source: iSuppli)

Held back in recent years by what Bouchaud calls "myriad commercialization and technological obstacles," sales of RF MEMS are expected to double in 2010 to $8.1B, after staying in the $3B-$4B range for several years — and increase by 2×-3× in each of the next three years, topping $223B by 2014, he projects. By then more than half of all cell phones will ship with some form of front-end module tuning using RF MEMS technology.

Who’s positioning themselves to ride this RF MEMS wave?

Cell phones. Mobile handset makers like how RF MEMS can be used for front-end tuning to improve antenna performance, spurred by new wireless standards such as LTE for 4G technology. Players: WiSpry, TDK-Epcos.

Testing and instrumentation. Applications such as ATE and RF test offer opportunities for RF MEMS switches and varactors — e.g. wireless infrastructure (e.g. femto cells) and cellular base stations, offering a cheaper and higher-performing alternative to current switches. Players: Analog Devices, Radiant Technologies, XCOM Wireless (with relay maker Teledyne), Omron.

Defense/aerospace applications. These applications include radio systems and phased array antennas, generally looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, but representing a million-units market. Players: Startups Radant MEMS, MEMtronics.

For more information, check iSuppli’s full report: "RF MEMS switches and varactors deliver on their promise."

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