A conversation with Kevin Schoenrock, President of the Open RF Association

Open RF Association President Kevin Schoenrock has over 20 years of mobile industry experience focused on the smartphone market along with assignments in IoT, automotive and infrastructure. He has held various leadership roles in Sales, Product Marketing, Technology Development, Business Development and Strategic Marketing at Sawtek, TriQuint Semiconductor, RF360 JV and Qorvo.

As Director of Corporate Strategy & Planning at Qorvo, Kevin drives the long-range business plans and strategic objectives for the Mobile division while aligning technology and investment initiatives across the corporation. Prior to this, he led the Product Marketing Team for the Mobile product portfolio. He earned his MSEE and MBA degrees from the University of South Florida.

We recently sat down with Kevin to discuss his goals as President of the Open RF Association and his vision for the future of an open, interoperable RF front-end and RF integrated circuit (RFIC) ecosystem.

How did you first become involved in the OpenRF Association? What are your immediate goals as president of the association? 

OpenRF came about as an organization through a combination of customer requests and open discussion with others in the industry. Many of us in the mobile industry were seeing increased consistent customer demand for this type of organization, and so through informal conversations we began to see others in the industry saw the same type of requests.

It started with asking, do we have enough critical mass of other companies with the same type of vision who want to join and invest in such an organization? Obviously, the answer was yes, so then the second step was trying to formulate a structure and organization of the consortium. The third step was getting the consortium off the ground, electing the officers, articulating the vision, and forming the working groups to define and execute the goals.

Once the board of directors was formed, we sat down and looked at it from a broad industry perspective of how the consortium can properly serve our industry, and then we created the working groups aligned to what we’re trying to deliver to the market. Those working groups work with our customers and our partners to create specifications. We plan to release our first specification later this month. Those are essentially the immediate goals along with continued recruitment and marketing efforts.

From a broader perspective, our goal remains to support the interests of 5G original equipment manufacturers (OEMS) by establishing and maintaining an open and interoperable ecosystem between chipsets and RF front-end. We are meeting the market’s demand for open interfaces and enabling RF front-end to scale across platforms.

What are some of the biggest industry challenges that led to the need for a new and open, interoperable 5G ecosystem standard across RF front-end and chipset platforms?

One of the biggest industry challenges that led to the need for a new standard was complexity. What we saw was that 5G was becoming very complex and there needed to be tighter collaboration between RFIC and RF front-end vendors to support the ecosystem.

The second was the need to emulate an industry reference design that would work across chipsets. There is a lack of standards between chipsets and the RF front-end, with the number of 5G chips coming, fragmentation in RF front-end requirements and architectures was preventing economies of scale to be realized across platforms by OEMs. This lack of standards along with greater complexity increases the cost, risk and time-to-market of wireless products, OpenRF is an attempt to solve these challenges.

5G is entrenched across not only smartphones but in other new market segments such as industry 4.0, IoT, and automotive. As it proliferates and there continues to be more evolution of the 5G standard, there will be additional players – both RFIC and RF front-end – who continue to innovate and deliver new solutions. Our goal is to position OpenRF as that interoperability standard that will enable competition across segments, not only just market segments but RFIC and RF front-end segments.

Last, as an open 5G ecosystem continues to grow, the industry needs to have a compliance program in place to test and validate. That’s our goal for 2022, to ensure that customers are receiving the interoperability benefits that OpenRF stands for. More importantly that our partners and members are enjoying the ease of use and common interoperability we are delivering and their customers are recognizing that.

Where do you see the industry evolving in the next three years, and how do you see OpenRF meeting industry needs?

Similar to 4G, the 5G standard will continue to evolve in capability while expanding across many more markets. This expected pace of change, coupled with complexity, is where OpenRF can support the industry. Creating standard register maps and interface requirements really helps not only the customers but all of the RFIC and RF front-end vendors. Standardization along with architectural planning prevents unexpected design requirements from impacting OEM development cycles.

As an organization, we want to improve time-to-market, reduce design risk, and lower R&D investments throughout the value chain as best as we can, as well as try to create some sort of greatest common denominator across platforms to scale in either features or interoperability that makes sense without impacting the ability to innovate. That is important with any standards body or organization – if we have advisors and partners, we can better understand our customers or our customers’ KPIs to ensure that what we’re doing in terms of standards and specifications is meeting their requests.

OpenRF will enable 5G cellular device OEMs to select compliant RF front-end devices to operate seamlessly with member 5G chipsets. This gives OEMs maximum choice in RF front-end solutions and provides lower development costs, reduced time-to-market and design risk, highest performance utilizing a platform for future innovations, and improved supply chain implemented across the breadth of OEM consumer mobile products. Really, we saw that between the RFIC vendors, the RF front-end vendors, and the OEM manufacturers, it’s a win-win-win.

What are the near-term goals for OpenRF? Can you talk about the Phase 1.0.0 specification and what it covers?

Less than one year from formation, the consortium is right on pace getting ready to release our first specification this summer. Phase 1.0.0 is our first specification release. What it delivers is, first and foremost, an introduction to the organization and what we’re going to do for the ecosystem. We’re creating a document that establishes our initial goals of interoperability and cohesiveness amongst RFIC and RF front-end members. We have a liaison agreement with the MIPI alliance, so we’re issuing our first OpenRF standardized register maps. That’s the first key building block for interoperability. All the front-end components have a common language and register map configuration that will enable configurability in future generations.

Phase 1.0.0 will also establish a hardware naming convention, which is important as you try to test or link certain register maps and compatibility with transceivers – you have to know what to name them.

It will also have our first hardware abstraction layer (HAL) architecture document including a programming guide. The HAL standardizes the software interface between RFIC and RF front-end by creating an RFIC and RF front-end agnostic software interface, enhancing the transceiver to RF front-end interface capability and flexibility. This allows for another way to cloak the specific hardware features of RF front-end and RFIC vendors to work at a higher level in the physical layer so you can do special functions and features between the RFIC and RF front-end. I like to look at it as we’re creating a future roadway between RFICs and RF front-ends to transport specific information any way you want without the need to tell everyone how you’re doing it. The goal of Phase 1.0.0 is to ensure interoperability, optimize configurations and standardize certain specifications enabling interchangeable RF front-end to RFIC solutions.

Our next major release, Phase 2.0.0, will take place sometime toward the end of the year, and we’ll add our first elements of compliance along with incremental additions to Phase 1.0.0 elements. We expect to have initial OpenRF products hit the market toward the middle of next year. They will be RF front-end components because they’re a little faster turn time, then toward the end of 2022, we’ll see our first RFICs leveraging some of the OpenRF requirements, as they have a longer development cycle.

Why should companies join the OpenRF Association? What does involvement look like, especially in working groups?

We started with seven members, and we’ve almost doubled in membership since launch and are signing up key strategic advisors and initiating plans for industry benchmark studies. I think if your company is going to create a 5G device, whether it’s a smartphone or the internet of things, OpenRF is going to provide that framework from a hardware perspective, along with the software elements, to get the best solution in terms of time-to-market, cost competitiveness and performance. We’re trying to create the kind of standard that everyone can benefit from, not only from a hardware perspective but the things we’re doing within the software to evolve the standard and provide enhancements needed to meet the ecosystem demands. It’ll give OEMs the best amount of choices to deliver their products with the most flexibility in terms of optimizing or configuring what they’re trying to deliver.

There are three different levels of membership: Strategic, General and Affiliate. Strategic Members are part of the Board of Directors and can lead our working groups and receive voting rights and access to final specifications. General Members can contribute to working groups and get access to all the specifications. More importantly, they can engage and shape the future of the association through involvement in working groups. Affiliate Membership is maybe for startups that don’t have a lot of resources but need to know what’s going on, industry-adjacent organizations that are trying to learn, or public or government institutions.

Membership is open to any company involved in the manufacturing of smartphone chipsets, RF front-end products, OEM vendors or any related industry companies, and you can learn about the benefits and download the membership application on our website. OpenRF is committed to expanding functional hardware and software interoperability for RF front-end and chipset platforms, so if a company is interested in contributing to the development of an open framework for any 5G baseband, we would welcome their participation.

We have five working groups: Register Map, Software_API, Hardware RF front-end and RFIC, RF_Power Management IC (PMIC), and Compliance. Each of those working groups is led by a chair or co-chairs, and they have very specific goals and tasks to achieve for each phased release to meet the overall consortia roadmap.

Another thing we’re trying to do as an organization is working to get OEMs and operators to be strategic advisors. We’re just starting to have initial success in those two areas, so it’s a way to get a deeper reach into the requirements of our customers to make sure what we’re doing as an organization is meeting their needs. So, if you are an operator or OEM and want to contribute, please reach out, because as a strategic advisor to the board or general member, you can help influence the goals and the direction of the organization. If you are interested, please reach out to admin@members.openrf.com