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GaAs Industry Results and Trends

by Eric Higham | Sep 21, 2012

I just posted theGaAs Five Year Forecast: 2011- 2016on the website and I am happy to report that the GaAs device industry continues to be very resilient. Despite an uncertain direction in the global economy, our research shows the GaAs device market closed 2011 with nearly 6% growth and record revenues of slightly more than $5.2 billion. In fact, our analysis shows the GaAs device market has not declined since 2004 when it stood a shade below $2.4 billion. I’m taking a bit of artistic license with that statement, because we have reported that the market in 2009 “declined” by less than 0.5%, but given the economic meltdown in the US at the time and the nature of the forecasting business: I’ll put that year on the good side of the ledger.

So why is the GaAs market so resilient and less sensitive to economic cycles than other semiconductor technologies (and I’m talking about you silicon)? I think the answer lies in the performance dimension of GaAs technology. We’ve all probably heard the saying “if silicon can do something, it will”. I believe that statement and we’ve certainly seen examples where if silicon-based technologies catch up to the performance of GaAs, the cost advantages make it an easy decision to eliminate GaAs. Keep in mind, among the first applications for GaAs technology were “high-speed” digital logic and where has that market gone? We are seeing SiGe devices in LNA applications and high-frequency transceivers and we are even starting to see CMOS used for handset PAs. The common thread in the application where GaAs is being displaced is a relatively stagnant technology environment. This may be the result of long design cycles, slow upgrade of standards, specifications that remain “good enough” for a long time or a number of other reasons. Where GaAs has proven resilient and risen to the challenge is where the requirements are moving “up and to the right” quickly. As handsets have become more sophisticated with the number of frequency bands increasing quickly, GaAs is still the most capable technology. As Wi-Fi standards evolve to incorporate millimeter wave frequency and multi-gigabit speeds, the displacement of GaAs in this segment does not look quite so certain.

So, why have I gone off on a bit of a tangent? It’s because we are in a period where GaAs will have to show its resiliency once again. We may be looking at a prolonged period of global economic uncertainty that will not help the business models for network capex or consumer spending. For the last couple of years, tremendous growth in smartphone sales have really helped pull the GaAs market along, but saturation is somewhere ahead and growth rates are slowing. In addition, GaAs is still seeing stiff and growing competition from GaN, SiGe, LDMOS and CMOS.

I remain optimistic that the GaAs device market will continue to grow and the report details the effect the trends I’ve mentioned will have on the GaAs bulk and epitaxial substrate market at the very front-end of the GaAs supply chain. The underlying drivers for GaAs growth; data consumption, more GaAs content in handsets, the need for higher capacity wired and wireless networks are still in place. However, I think that the economy is the wildcard. If it doesn’t improve, the growth we see in the next few years may be below historical averages. Now, I’m not a betting man, but despite the apparent gloom, I’m not so sure anyone should bet against the GaAs industry, given the track record of resiliency!


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