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RF Cable and Connector Outlook

March 14, 2014
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To evaluate the cable and connector market on the ground, Microwave Journal has taken a snapshot of activity from manufacturers in the U.S. and in Europe who offer a frontline perspective of the outlook for the market in 2014, expectations for growth and drivers impacting product development.

Market Outlook for 2014

Spectrum Elektrotechnik’s view is that in general there will not be significant change compared with recent years, while Huber + Suhner envisages moderate growth. W. L. Gore & Associates (Gore) states, “Uncertainty in the global economy and government cutbacks are affecting the amount of investment in research and innovation, particularly in smaller companies. We believe that this will have an impact in two major areas — the supply chain and innovation. To remain competitive in the market, established suppliers will need to advance the development of new materials, products and technologies.”

Gore continues, “Also, we believe that there will be more emphasis on selecting solutions that last longer, therefore, saving time and money over the life of projects or systems. This focus on products that survive the test of time will be the driving force behind innovation, with more customers requesting information about durability testing in their application environments.”

SPINNER’s focus is primarily related to jumpers (cable assemblies) which are the company’s core business and general connectors, with both being predicted to grow in 2014. SPINNER comments, “The tremendous effort to build mobile broadband networks has definitely increased the demand for both connectors and jumpers. We see a rising demand for mid-sized connectors to support more compact housings for BTSs and antennas as well as better PIM that primarily addresses the replacement of N connectors, which has mainly been driven by the U.S. so far.”

Figure 1

Figure 1 RF jumper cables for BTS, 2012-2017 (Source: EJL Wireless Research).

Mobile communications is also seen as a factor by Molex Inc., which states, “Higher data rates and demand for functionality are major drivers for growth in mobile wireless telecommunications and networking. As an industry, we can expect continued expansion in sales of mobile and wireless devices, in tandem with high rates of technology refresh. Key markets for RF/microwave are growing across the board at a robust pace, including a strong rebound in the automotive industry. The sales pipeline is full across wireless markets, spurred by high volume and high value solutions and tools to make it easier for customers to more quickly bring new products to market.”

Areas of Growth

Concentrating on the company’s core markets, SPINNER predicts, “The jumper market will grow and at the same time jumpers will become longer. There is also a tendency for LF1/2" to increase market share compared to SF1/2". The ongoing introduction of BBUs and RRUs will reduce the need for feeder lines, which will be reflected in longer jumpers being used between RRUs and antennas.”

Figure 2

Figure 2 2012 RF feeder cables for BTS by diameter (Source: EJL Wireless Research).

Figure 3

Figure 3 2012 RF jumper cables for BTS (Source: EJL Wireless Research).

EJL Wireless Research also supports that feeder cables are declining in use as they are being replaced by fiber optic cables. The jumper cable stability and future growth is supported by EJL Wireless Research as it sees RF jumper cable demand remaining stable due to remote radio head (RRH) deployments on BTS sites.  Its market projection for feeder cables is shown in Figure 1 with flat demand in 2013-15 but some growth expected in 2016-17.

Figure 4

Figure 4 2012 RF DIN/N connectors for BTS by size (Source: EJL Wireless Research).

EJL Wireless Research analyzed the feeder and jumper cable size for BTS for 2012. Figures 2 and 3 show the size breakdown and total market size for feeder and jumper cables, respectively. About half of the feeder cable diameters are 1¼" or larger with a total market size of $380.7 million.  On the other hand, close to half of jumper cables are ½" or less, to provide flexibility, with a total market size of $280.3 million.

With regard to connectors, SPINNER maintains, “From the perspective of quantity, connector growth will be dominated by 7-16 in 2014. Nevertheless, most growth percentage wise (market share) will be with 4.1-9.5 and 4.3-10. The 4.1-9.5 will grow more significantly in North America based on carrier announcements to replace N with 4.1-9.5. 4.1-9.5 based products such as BTS and antennas which have been adapted to 4.1-9.5 and installations have started in Q1 2014.

“While North America is currently primarily focusing on 4.1-9.5 deployments, the rest of the world is looking forward to 4.3-10 with high expectations (and we cannot say North America is not). We have developed 4.3-10 and the system is currently undergoing standardization. Once this is finalized and major carriers/OEMs have introduced them on their equipment, we expect the floodgates to open for this new connector system.”

EJL Wireless Research confirms the dominance of 7/16 in as shown in Figure 4. Almost 70 percent of DIN/N connectors for BTS in 2012 were ½" or smaller with a total market of $213.9 million. EJL Wireless Research also analyzed the BTS connectors by type which is shown in Figure 5. This shows the dominance of ½" or smaller DIN straight connectors. EJL Wireless Research also sees a trend that RF connectors are beginning to see mini-DINs and MCIC types for cables/antennas that are driven by TD-LTE deployments in China and the U.S.

Molex sees: “Significant development work to add RF features in everything from appliances to automobiles. In the immediate future, we foresee new technologies such as 4K HDTV and cameras to deliver to savvy consumers the higher resolution experience that will gain mass market appeal as content grows.”

Figure 5

Figure 5 2012 RF connectors for BTS by type (Source: EJL Wireless Research).

With its wide range of cable and connector products, Huber + Suhner sees most growth in the transportation sector, particularly public transport, military and space applications, and to facilitate communication infrastructure changes. In its field of application, Spectrum Elektrotechnik states, “The most growth we expect is for phase matched cable assemblies and hermetically sealed connectors and adapters.”

Gore envisages environmental factors being important, commenting: “As industries continue to deal with tightening budgets, the biggest area of growth we see for microwave/RF applications is the demand for reliable components — especially cable assemblies — that withstand demanding environments. For example, portable analyzers are increasingly being used in the aerospace and telecommunications industries to facilitate testing out in the field. These analyzers need cable assemblies that can withstand the extreme environmental conditions as well as frequent handling during use. Specific applications that are emerging — and will be a focus for many — include radar systems, millimeter-wave applications, and automotive radar.”

With regard to geographical growth, Molex views its global network at the forefront of today’s
RF/microwave technologies, providing complete support at every phase of the product life cycle. The company says, “Asia represents the fastest regional growth market with proliferation of consumer, networking, cellular mobile products and automotive demand on the rise. In Europe and North America, there is an increasing demand for connectivity across many platforms, driving a need for greater bandwidth to support handheld devices, notebook computers, WiFi access points and other networking activity.”

Gore identifies new players in the market, stating, “As the mobile phone and wireless service providers continue to reduce hardware costs and improve system reliability, large underserved markets like Africa may rival China in terms of growth.”

Huber + Suhner predicts the potential for growth being in the established markets of North America, Western Europe and APAC. Spectrum Elektrotechnik is concerned that the impact of Germany and several other European companies cutting their military budget, while the “U.S. is stagnating” could mean limited growth. However, SPINNER sees the introduction of 4.1-9.5 in North America as being significant while the rest of the world starts to adapt to LF1/2" jumpers.

Drivers for Product Development

Success is dependent on developing the right product at the right time for the right market. However, achieving that goal is reliant on a multitude of factors.

Gore’s current approach is to: “Continue to focus on delivering reliable electrical and mechanical integrity in demanding environments. In the aerospace industry, for example, cables need to withstand abrasion, cut-through, and routing during installation and maintenance as well as vibration, flexibility, and extreme temperatures during operation.

“Aircraft manufacturers are continuing to look for solutions that lower the total weight and cost of cable assemblies and improve their installation process, all without compromising signal integrity over the life of the aircraft. This translates to a demand for lighter, tougher, more durable cable technologies that minimize the need for frequent cable replacements.”

SPINNER takes the view that, “The jumper market is developing more and more into a project driven installation business, which is driving us to offer the highest possible flexibility to our customers, facilitated by focusing on fast and customized manufacturing. Flexible means, manufacturing different jumper types with individually configured connectors and cable length within a few days. To achieve this, the focus is not just on product development, but also the development of our manufacturing plants and processes to ensure quick turnaround time while maintaining high quality.”

The company also believes that with the introduction of LTE, low PIM has become even more critical alongside the increasing need for miniaturization since BTS and antenna housings are quite often dominated by the size of the connector system. SPINNER says, “Our customers see most of the problems in the field going back to incorrect installation or inappropriate material usage; this is why we developed a more robust and less error-prone 4.3-10 connector system. Basically, SPINNER is committed to 4.3-10 that support the key factors of PIM, size and reliability.”

Low PIM requirements have been a growing concern over the last few years as system requirements have tightened up as the industry learned more about its effects. System integrators are now requiring very low PIM specifications and might move to even lower levels that could push many cable/connector manufacturers out of the this market. Current industry standards require PIM levels of about -150 dBc or better, but some in the industry have hinted that they might require levels as low as -160 dBc in the future. This will also impact testing as designing test systems that are capable of accurately measuring down to the level will be difficult. Read “Passive Intermodulation Characteristics” by Murat Eron of the Wireless Telecom Group in this issue for more specifics about PIM and how it affects cable design and systems.

Focusing on the specific needs of its customers and its product offering, Spectrum Elektrotechnik sees a key driver being “phase adjustable self-locking connectors with a wide adjustment range, e.g., 280° at 18 GHz.”

Huber + Suhner identifies key drivers being to provide energy efficiency and the production of environmentally friendly product with the elimination of hazardous substances and the adherence to safety standards. It also sees increased bandwidth and the subsequent demand for higher frequencies being significant, along with the need to reduce weight and size, requiring miniaturization.

Miniaturization is also a consideration for Molex as are the requirements of OEMS. The company states, “Based on proven connector technologies, specialty ganged, stacked, backplane and other multi-port I/O solutions that group connectors in a common housing are gaining traction among OEMs looking to streamline designs and save space in many different systems. Miniaturization has enabled better designs in smart products, earbuds, music players, streaming video and audio devices.

“Low frequency microcoaxial RF solutions represent a high volume market, especially for ultra-miniature stamped connectors. Microcoaxial RF connectors are a low-profile (available down to 1 mm mated height) wire-to-board solution – ideal for embedding in small, handheld wireless devices such as mobile phones, radio-communication equipment, GPS systems, tablet computers and a plethora of content streaming consumer applications.”

Summary

Most companies see the BTS cable assembly market being stable with flat to moderate growth in the coming years. There seems to be a shift away from feeder cables due to the ongoing introduction of BBUs and RRUs plus some replacement by fiber optical cables. The jumper cable market is expected to experience moderate growth due to the deployment of remote radio heads. There seems to be a market push for higher quality cables that are more durable and have lower PIM. As more LTE networks are deployed, PIM becomes more important and requirements are likely to become even more stringent forcing cable assembly manufacturers to improve quality and testing procedures. While the 7/16 RF connector dominates the current BTS market, other connector types are being introduced and are expected to grow in popularity. RF connectors are beginning to see the use of mini-DINs and MCIC types for cables and antennas driven by TD-LTE deployments in China and the U.S.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to EJL Wireless Research who provided the data and graphics for the market analysis and projections in addition to inputs on market trends (www.ejlwireless.com,
info@ejlwireless.com)

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