MACOM and Infineon have settled their legal fight over ownership of GaN on Si intellectual property (IP). In an unexpected conclusion, MACOM CEO John Croteau said Infineon has assigned ownership of the disputed patents to MACOM for all fields of use, and MACOM has licensed the patents back to Infineon, although Infineon is restricted from selling production quantities of RF GaN on Si base station products until 2021.
Croteau disclosed the settlement during MACOM’s earnings call on 13 November. He said the agreement achieves two objectives: securing MACOM’s ownership of the fundamental patents and strengthening the production capacity for RF GaN on Si, essential to capitalize on the 5G market opportunity.
“With the Infineon settlement, we control our own destiny in GaN for base stations and, in fact, GaN for all fields of use,” said Croteau.
According to Croteau, “GaN is effectively a requirement for 5G base stations due to its superior efficiency and power density at the higher 5G frequency bands,” adding that GaN on Si is ideal for massive MIMO power amplifiers (PA). Compared to macro base stations, PAs for massive MIMO need lower output power and don’t require the more complex and expensive packaging and back-end infrastructure required for higher power LDMOS transistors.
He said the demand for RF power semiconductor devices for 5G through 2023 will be three times greater than the demand when LTE was deployed, which triples the $1 billion RF power market.
“Billion dollar markets require high volume semiconductor fabs” to assure the continuity and security of supply, Croteau said.
MACOM has already established a strategic supply relationship with STMicroelectronics, and the two companies have developed a GaN on Si process compatible with STMicro’s high volume silicon fab.
Croteau sees the licensing deal with Infineon as enabling another supplier with a high volume silicon fab.
“Even the most optimistic plans for GaN on SiC factory expansion, announced by SiC leaders, can service but a small fraction of that 5G demand,” argues Croteau.
The settlement of the dispute between MACOM and Infineon follows a long trail. The GaN on Si IP in contention was first developed by Nitronex, a GaN on Si start-up born from research at North Carolina State University.
In 2010, Nitronex sold the IP rights to International Rectifier (IR). While IR was principally interested in the technology for power electronics, apparently IR also acquired the rights for RF applications in exchange for cash needed by Nitronex to stay afloat. However, Nitronex retained an exclusive license to use the IP for RF applications.
MACOM bought Nitronex in February, 2014, and Infineon bought IR in January, 2015. In 2016, MACOM sued Infineon, claiming Infineon was violating the license agreement established between Nitronex and IR. The court granted MACOM a preliminary injunction, allowing MACOM to continue using the IP and preventing Infineon from applying it for RF power applications until the suit was settled or tried.
Croteau did not disclose any financial information about the settlement, saying the terms are confidential.
Infineon vs. Infineon (Wolfspeed)?
In another interesting twist, in March of this year, Cree bought Infineon’s RF power business, adding Infineon’s LDMOS and GaN on SiC products to Wolfspeed’s GaN on SiC portfolio. One might conclude that Infineon has no further interest in RF power for the infrastructure market. However, this settlement with MACOM opens the door for Infineon to re-enter the market with a GaN on Si play.
Ah, the great game of business is always interesting.