Epcos AG's recent acquisition of NXP Semiconductor's Radio Frequency Microelectromechanical Systems (RF MEMS) business establishes the company as the leader in a technology that promises to expand the capabilities and cut the costs and power consumption of mobile handsets, according to iSuppli Corp.

Munich-based Epcos this year said it would take over Netherlands-based NXP's RF MEMS business with the anticipation it will develop into a product line worth nearly 1 billion euros. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

RF MEMS technology can be applied to the radio-frequency front-ends of mobile phones, including the antenna and the power amplifier. Using RF MEMS, these components can be made to be tunable, meaning they can support multiple wireless interfaces—including 3G, Wi-Fi and WiMAX—and can operate over a variety of frequency bands. Such capabilities are expected to become increasingly important as mobile handsets add new features while striving to maintain small form factors, low costs and efficient power consumption.

“To support such a wide range of interfaces and bandwidths, mobile-handset makers now are employing designs that use a multitude of components for the RF front end—as many as 100 parts in some cases,” said Jérémie Bouchaud, director and principal analyst, MEMS, for iSuppli. “This represents an expensive, space-hogging, and inefficient approach to RF design. Alternatively, RF MEMS can cut the component count dramatically, producing front-ends that are half the cost and size and are far less complex to design. This translates into a 10 percent increase in battery time for feature-rich phones. It also provides other benefits, including superior performance, fewer dropped calls and faster data rates.”

The most promising potential use for RF MEMS switches and switched capacitors in mobile handsets is in impedance matching networks for antenna matching and matching of power amplifiers (PA). The main advantage of RF MEMS switches is their capability to be integrated with other passives, combined with their high performance, especially in the areas of linearity and low insertion loss.

“While RF MEMS hold a great deal of promise, the market remains in a developmental stage, with NXP never having commenced commercial production of such parts," Bouchaud said. “Furthermore, Epcos presently is not a significant player in the market for mobile-handset semiconductors, although it does supply passives for wireless phones. Barriers to entry for new suppliers of components in this market are very high due to intense competition, and the large size, extensive resources and established customer relations of the established players.”

However, due to the strong promise of the technology, Epcos still is likely to find success in this area, iSuppli believes. Epcos' strategy calls for it to eventually become a provider of complete RF subsystems, rather than a seller of discrete MEMS components.

Offering more complete solutions will be key to success for Epcos.

“In the wireless-semiconductor market, demand for components increasingly is being concentrated among the Top-5 mobile-handset OEMs,” said Francis Sideco, senior analyst for wireless communications at iSuppli. “These Top-5 OEMs are purchasing platform reference designs from the semi suppliers and not discrete chips.”

While these platforms typically require expertise in both the digital and analog portions of the handset architecture, there are still some top chipset suppliers that need third-party help on the analog portion of the RF subsystem—i.e., everything in between the PA and the antenna.

“If Epcos can field a product portfolio that differentiates it from the incumbents in the RF segment, then it will have an opportunity to partner with a baseband chipset supplier to get on its reference design,” Sideco added. The NXP deal represents just one step Epcos has taken on the path to MEMS leadership, iSuppli believes. Epcos has stated that MEMS technology offers attractive growth opportunities in applications besides RF, including microphones and pressure, acceleration and rotation-rate sensors.

Epcos in February 2007 acquired Aktiv Sensor, a German MEMS pressure sensor manufacturer. Epcos also started serial production of FBAR filters in 2006, parts that belong to the RF MEMS family of devices.

iSuppli believes that within the next few years, Epcos is likely to become a leading supplier to the mobile-handset industry.