Can RF test equipment keep pace with the development of wireless technology

| Information and Communication Technology

Labview equipment from NI
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Higher bandwidths and the promise of 5G communications place increasing demands on suppliers of test instrumentation. Jonathan Newell probes the implications.

Wireless Growth

Wireless technology and test instrumentation should be coupled so closely that they share a common thread in their development but this hasn’t always been the case and the widening gap between the onward thrust of wireless progress and the ability to test wireless enabled products has reached a point where major changes are needed in the installed base of test beds and engineers’ approaches to performing the test function. This ability to stay current on technology trends is one of the biggest challenges faced by test engineers today.

Meanwhile, the progress is rapid. According to test instrumentation pioneering company, National Instruments, “Moore’s Law” is as applicable to its industry as it is to computer technology. Moore’s Law states that transistor density on an integrated circuit doubles every two years and the same rate of growth seems to be in place for wireless communication system bandwidth. This has grown from the introduction of 1G in the late 1970s to the latest 4th generation equipment operating at an RF bandwidth of up to 160MHz. This is set to grow to 2GHz within the next few years with the advent of 5G.

This will be a time when the current generation of signal analysers with 20MHz of instantaneous bandwidth will seem delightfully retro but not terribly useful. However, there are few instruments that can handle such bandwidth which currently exist and time is running out.

With a predicted deployment time for 5G of 2020, test instrumentation to cope with the development work on 5G-based products will need to be generally available within the next two years or the industry simply won’t be ready in time.

Bandwidth growth shows similarities to Moore’s law

Industry Opportunities

The opportunities within the industry are significant. According to analysis released last year from Frost & Sullivan, the global outlook for electronic test equipment amounts to a revenue stream of over 4.5 billion dollars by 2018, a growth of more than 28% on 2013 levels.

The market encompasses general purpose test equipment as well as the more complex signal generators, spectrum analysers and network analysers required for complicated networked environments. According to Frost’s analyst, Prathima Bommakanti, the approaching availability of 5G will escalate the demand for higher frequency bands, driving up the requirements for test equipment in the microwave range.

Frost also predicts a move away from traditional box instruments towards the more flexible PXI-based instrumentation. PXI (or PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) provides a PC-based platform on which instruments can be built and configured in a modular way and provides test engineers with far wider scope in the tests that can be performed and their conditions. PXI-based systems are also more easily re-configured for new test processes.

Not just telecoms

For those who are wondering whether 5G is just about telecommunications and therefore test engineers in other industries can relax, the latest generation of mobile and wireless communications will have far-reaching implications in the Internet of Things (IoT) and the reason boils down to wavelength.

Currently, wireless communications operate within a range of frequencies that are becoming increasingly used up and offer little room for additional applications within them. 5G offers the opportunity to open up a whole new area of the spectrum between 30 and 300GHz. If it can be used effectively, this part of the RF spectrum offers an alluring ten times as much spectral real-estate as the existing frequencies between 0 and 30GHz.

But there’s a problem. These lower frequencies are popular for a reason and that’s usability. As the wavelength decreases into the millimetre wave region above 30GHz, significant challenges emerge regarding transmission losses. A light fall of rain can mean the difference between a good signal and one which is plagued by interference. With this kind of drawback, it’s clear that millimetre wave communications aren’t suitable for all applications, particularly outdoor or long distance transmissions.

Where 5G really comes into its own is IoT. Short distance, high speed communications between devices in manufacturing, medical and transport applications or home entertainment can be served admirably by the latest generation of wireless communications.

Although the IoT is key to 5G development, the Extremely High Frequency end of the spectrum isn’t its single defining aspect, according to Finnish telecommunications giant, Nokia. At this year’s Mobile World Conference event, Nokia forecast a world where 5G dominates and predicted it would combine the best of existing 4G frequency ranges with the advantages of the millimetre wave end of the spectrum to open up new possibilities involving massive connectivity and distributed computing.

Offering ultra-low latency, massive connectivity and a data rate of 10Gbit/second as seen by the user, 5G provides the means for designers to create high performance industrial and consumer networks.

5G Applications

With no specification, road map or clear definitions in place, the options for deploying 5G in the future are still wide open and the potential applications seem endless. Such optimism may soon be tempered by the reality of what is feasible within a regulatory framework but the following applications seem highly likely:

Wireless chip connection – Components on printed circuits boards will have the ability to be linked wirelessly enabling further miniaturisation of microprocessor circuits.

Home entertainment – The ability to link set-top boxes, game consoles and personal computers to the TV without the need for cabling.

Portable storage – Disk drives and solid state storage devices that can be accessed wirelessly at higher bit-rates than existing USB 3.0 rates.

Driverless cars – Low latency wireless communications are essential for safety critical autonomous operation of vehicles.

Telemedicine – The ability to share medical skills and perform clinical tasks remotely

Prototyping

The ability to prototype hardware that depends on next-generation wireless communications has reached a new level of complexity that demands complicated test and evaluation equipment. One company that is at the forefront of enabling developers to perform prototyping is National Instruments. Using the company’s LabView Communications System Design Suite, engineers have access to the integrated radio hardware and software required for the task.

Rohde and Schwartz has also created test equipment which is capable of performing tests to 5G frequencies, comprising signal generator, signal and spectrum analyser and vector network analysers. The company is also being proactive in preparing the industry for 5G with resources, white papers and an on-line webinar.

Preparing for the 5th generation

Some analysts say that the next generation of mobile and wireless communications will connect 50 billion devices, with 1000 times as much data hurtling between them a hundred times faster than existing networks.

With technology giants like Samsung and Nokia ploughing their extensive resources into making sure this happens within the next five years, there’s significant pressure on development, test and quality engineers today to try and foresee the environment in which they’ll work and prepare for it early.

The work is hard and resources are thinly spread but the rewards of meeting these challenges promise to be high for those who reach the market in time for the 5G explosion.

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