The Sky is unlimited at Skyworks
By Bridge Carney 01/09/2014
If we all understood what power amplifiers, PA+duplexer integrated modules, low noise amplifiers, front-end modules, low loss RF antenna switches, directional couplers, antenna tuners and highly integrated RF subsystems do, then you would already know some of the technologies developed and produced by Skyworks in Newbury Park. Skyworks is a leader and producer of some the most sophisticated electronics used in the cell phone, Wi-Fi, defense, aerospace, automotive, medical and other technology-based markets today.
Now let’s get into our Ventura County Reporter Plugged-In vehicle and go up to 40,000 feet and see from a high level what some of this does … in simpler terms.
In order to communicate using wireless signals, antennas are used to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves. The antennas must be sized according to the frequency of these electromagnetic signals and in order to make the antennas small enough to support in a handheld device or smartphone. The frequencies of transmission and reception must be quite high — at radio frequencies (RF) in the range of up to 5 billion cycles per second! For the handheld transmitter, high-speed ultra-linear electronic circuits are used to convert digital bits to analog signals, convert them to these very high frequencies. They are then amplified with specialty circuits having extremely low distortion and current consumption up to anywhere from one-fourth watt to two watt maximum power, filtered and delivered to these ultrasmall antennas for transmission. When the handheld is receiving signals, the signals have traveled up to a mile from the base station cellphone tower and the signal can be quite small, so small in fact, relative to other large signals that are also present on the antenna, that it is the equivalent of hearing a whisper 50 meters away across midfield of a crowded football stadium filled with 100,000 screaming fans. In order to extract these small signals from the large noise and interference present, the signal needs to be strongly filtered and then amplified by ultra-high linearity and noise free circuits. All of these high performance transmitter and receiver radio circuits in the realm of RF are the specialty of Skyworks technology and design.
As it turns out boosting signals is only a part of the complex world as the middle-ware between an antenna and a radio, and getting more complex every day.
There are many industry standards for cell phones as to how to put voice and data into packets of digital information. Cell phone providers choose from established standards, for their own technology reasons, in pursuit of providing what they believe bring the best solutions. And to make it more complex, there are standards within the standards. Most people have heard about the 4G revolution (4G comes from the term fourth generation) for our cell phones. It is through continued technological innovations and refinement that 4G now handles the data and voice packets in more efficient ways than the 3G standard that we’ve used for the past several years. This efficiency has enabled much faster data throughput, which requires a lot of packets, running through our wireless connections without the slowdown we once had. Expectations are high for this market as the total number of internet-capable mobile wireless devices (having some form of internet enabled mobile connectivity) is projected to reach 50 billion in 2020 — that’s six devices for each person on the planet!
Another critical trend of today’s smartphones is that they often support roaming all over the world and, as such need, to work at many different frequencies. There are presently about 40 different frequency bands in use with these different communication standards globally, and today’s high-end phones may support up to 20 of these. Each frequency band requires specific hardware for filtering, amplification and signal treatment within the complex radio, and low-loss switches to route the signal onto the many RF paths as it makes its way either from digital bits to the shared antenna in transmission, or from the antenna down to digital bits in reception. Further complicating this explosion of band support for world phones is that most of these require simultaneous operation of a transmitter and several receivers, all at different frequencies. With all of these RF paths operating at the same time, the isolation of each from the others becomes a huge challenge. As one of its recent developments, Skyworks has been the first company globally to deliver to market one of these complex entire radio front-ends in a single package. Solving these challenging coexistence, isolation and performance issues across so many simultaneous RF pathways in a single module is one way Skyworks is simplifying the complexity of next-generation communication hardware for our customers to successfully assemble state-of-the-art smartphones.
A variety of semiconductor technologies are used for the active electronic components, from low-cost standard Si-based technologies like CMOS and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) for use in the digital control and RF switching blocks to more exotic high-performance gallium arsenide (GaAs) semiconductors for use in the actual power amplifier blocks.
The production of gallium arsenide chips has a history in Ventura County. The area along the 101 corridor through Ventura County was at one time referred to as “Gallium Arsenide Alley” and produced chips for some of the faster supercomputers in the world.
Where did Skyworks get its know-how to produce some of the most sophisticated digital solutions? That starts with another local company: Rockwell Science Center in Thousand Oaks. From the 1970s to the late 1990s the Rockwell Science Center was a think tank that produced many key technologies, including the GaAs-based power amplifier technology, which was initially developed for both military and general commercial uses. Rockwell then went through a series of spinoffs and one such spinoff was the group that worked on wireless and RF electronics. The group went through a few more transitions until it was acquired by Skyworks, based in Woburn, Mass., in 2002. With its key personnel already in place in Ventura County and the legacy of gallium arsenide chip technology in the county, Skyworks has continued with research and development and expanded its operations. Today the Skyworks semiconductor fab operations in Newbury Park are housed in a 185,000-square-foot facility. In addition to its design staff developing the next generation of enabling technologies for feature-rich futurephones, Newbury Park is the main contributor of Skyworks products worldwide. Skyworks is presently shipping parts at a rate of more than a billion and a half units each year, more than 5 million of its semiconductor-based individual components, modules or fully integrated solutions on a daily basis!
Plugged In is a monthly column focused on new technology in and around Ventura County and it will be featured the second week of every month. Plugged In authors Bridge Carney and Karl Geiger are chairman and past chairman, respectively, for the Ventura section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE], the world’s largest professional organization, with more than 800 local members in Ventura County. Please find them at www.ieee-bv.org.