Electronic Products & Technology

Feature

Enabling a connected communication journey


Wireless communication has undergone a dramatic evolution since its inception. What once began as a way to enable electrical signaling without wires (wireless telegraphy) has now given way to voice, video and data communication via smartphones and other mobile devices that are quickly becoming ubiquitous. Last year alone, smartphone shipments outnumbered PC shipments for the first time ever. What’s more, people bought three times as many tablets as the year before.

Users of these mobile devices download a billion apps each month, and with apps popping up daily for just about anything one could imagine, that number shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. While increasing demand for high data rate services like apps is a key driving force behind the continued technology evolution in wireless communication, it also poses a problem. As more and more users access different data streams at the same time, the overall delivery rate has the potential to slow to a crawl. Some users may find it difficult to even connect at all. Finding a way to deal with this data rate issue has become critical to continued proliferation of wireless communication and meeting consumer expectation for a connected communication journey with full, seamless coverage at home, work and everywhere in between.

It’s all about the data rates

In the last decade, wireless communication has experienced explosive growth with consumer demand for higher data rates to accommodate new services growing rapidly ever since. Unfortunately, the wireless spectrum carrying all the data is limited and existing solutions to this capacity dilemma have reached an inflection point.

Third generation (3G) mobile communication systems were deployed to meet the initial demand for high data rate packet-based services (e.g., wireless internet access). Advancements to the 3G network—1xEV-DO for cdma2000 and HSDPA for WCDM—have also been introduced to further enhance data rate and communication system performance. Service providers even got in on the act by adding base stations with more and more antennas, adding many small cells and upgrading to new technologies—all in an attempt to improve the speed and quality of their wireless networks. Meanwhile, demand for higher data rates has just kept growing.

With 3G wireless systems unable to keep up with the growing demand for broadband services, industry has turned its attention to a number of other key approaches to improve speed and quality. These approaches include: enhancing wireless capabilities with upgrades to current technologies, moving to faster, more spectrum-efficient wireless technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), LTE-Advanced, Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) 802.11ac, and WLAN 802.11ad; offloading wireless data traffic via Wi-Fi hotspots and small cells, and using Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) technologies.

The foundation for a connected journey

While there are many uncertainties ahead with each of these approaches, one thing is certain: the company that’s first to market with the advances stands to win a significant share of the market. Given the multitude of design and test challenges that await any new technology; however, that won’t be easy.      *See Figure 1.

That’s where electronic test and measurement comes in, providing the foundation from which innovative new communication technologies and intelligent networks can be developed. Today’s smartphone and tablet makers—not to mention chipset developers and network operators—all depend on design and test instrumentation to help them design, prototype, test, build, install and maintain their products. For companies providing that instrumentation, the task is no less challenging. It falls to them to ensure that all data flying through the air at any given moment gets where it needs to be without delay. That’s why companies like Agilent, actively participant in numerous standards bodies, so they can develop the instrumentation required to meet that task and accelerate the design and testing of the emerging technologies so critical to improving communication speed and quality.

Some of the key instrumentation required for this purpose includes:

* Oscillocopes. In communications, an R&D engineer may use an oscilloscope to test device compliance to a specific industry standard. Makers of integrated circuits and computer chips that go into mobile phones and other devices use high-speed real-time oscilloscopes in R&D to validate and debug new semiconductors produced with their latest fabrication processes.

* Signal Analyzers and Signal Sources. Manufacturing engineers producing new communication systems need to ensure cellular base stations and handsets provide distortion-free transmission and reception over multiple channels—while avoiding interference with adjacent transmitters.

* One-Box Testers. For wireless devices such as smartphones or tablets, one-box testers measure performance characteristics at the chip, module or device level prior to deployment in a real network. These testers offer wireless developers realistic network-simulation and software-verification tools—including Internet connectivity with real data-traffic flows—in order to characterize and validate a design or device before it goes into production.

A prime example of a scenario would be a teenager sending multiple text messages while surfing the mobile Web during a phone call. Simulating this scenario would allow developers to determine a device’s ability to simultaneously handle extended amounts of data and voice traffic, switch between 2G, 3G and 4G networks, manage smartphone applications, and maintain battery life.

* General-Purpose Instruments. Included in this category are power supplies, voltmeters, multimeters, and low-frequency sources—all of which are found in almost every type of electronics laboratory because they are foundational, providing voltage and current, measuring voltage or current, or producing time-varying signals. Power supplies, for example, generate the precise voltage and current levels needed to drive electrical circuitry and understand the effects of power variations on a circuit. They are commonly used to mimic a mobile phone battery. Manufacturers also use a number of general-purpose instruments to test battery characteristics and ensure that the phones and tablets consumers carry are designed to optimize battery life.

* Electronic Design Automation (EDA). Engineers use EDA software to design, simulate and optimize the performance of electronic circuits on a chip or printed circuit board. In some cases, the software allows them to accelerate the design and validation of communication products before building a first prototype, often achieving first-pass success. Considering that taking a chip design to first silicon costs about $5 million, with each new iteration costing another $1 million, it’s easy to see why engineers would want to thoroughly test their designs in software first.

Component designers also use EDA software to design complex multiband modules for mobile phones. Conveniently, some newer EDA software now has the ability to simulate entire systems, including wireless communications architectures.

* Modular Instruments. Modular products, which encompass a range of products available in PXI and AXIe form factors, provide engineers the flexibility they want in choosing the solutions they need.

Addressing challenges with test and measurement

For proof of how critical such instrumentation is to ensuring the consumer vision of a connected communication journey, look no further than LTE-Advanced. As an evolved version of the 3GPP LTE standard, it is specifically intended to take advantage of advanced topology networks and achieve target peak data rates of
1 Gbps in the downlink and 500 Mbps in the uplink. It employs technologies like higher order MIMO to realize this functionality.

Like all new communication technologies, LTE-Advanced is complex and faces a number of design and test challenges, perhaps the most important of which pertain to higher-order MIMO, carrier aggregation, and clustered Single Carrier Frequency Division Multiple Access (SC-FDMA). Effectively addressing these challenges is what electronic test and measurement instrumentation and a company like Agilent does best (Figure 2). It supplies the accurate, feature-rich range of products—all of which work together—that communication companies require to design and test increasingly complex technologies like LTE-Advanced.              

The bottom line

When it comes to wireless communication, consumers now expect and demand full seamless coverage. Getting to this vision of connected communication; however, is no easy task—especially with the continual need for higher data rates hanging over the industry. It requires new technologies and approaches like LTE-Advanced and MIMO. And, it requires electronic test and measurement instrumentation to serve as the backbone on which these technologies can be designed and tested. Obtaining those instruments from a company like Agilent, with powerful wireless solutions designed to help engineers gain greater insight into their products and increased confidence in measurement results, will be critical to overcoming challenges from product development to manufacturing and deployment, and ultimately, helping communications companies ensure their customers enjoy the most positive experience possible.