5G to disrupt the test equipment market

-June 03, 2015

The coming 5G wave is set to not only disrupt the communications sector, but also the test equipment that serves it.  While some traditional instrument product categories may be utilized in the development of 5G, the real heavy lifting will be performed by instrumentation not yet invented. The combinations of frequency, spectrum width, data rates, and multi-antenna architectures are simply not present in today’s instruments. But one thing is clear: modular instruments will play a primary enabling role for 5G.  To explain why, let me first explain what 5G is all about.

What is 5G?

Simply put, 5G is the next generation cellular standard, the fifth generation.  The first cell phones were analog-based, such as Motorola’s AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System).  You could even listen to the calls on a standard radio scanner.  Second generation standards, such as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), adopted digital communications for voice and text, though at a slow rate.  The encrypted digital signals made them all but impossible to be monitored.  EDGE, an extension of GSM, increased 2G data rates through a higher bandwidth modulation scheme,  but utilizing the same spectrum and antennas. This was colloquially known as 2.5G.  Then came 3G systems, deploying WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) as its air interface, bringing the first true broadband speeds to mobile devices.  Each generation is a completely new radio network, so 3G systems use different base stations and antennas from 2G, both operating simultaneously.  Like 2G before it, 3G has adopted numerous enhancements to increase its speed while using the same 3G base station infrastructure.  4G, essentially the same as LTE (Long Term Evolution), upped the ante again with OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) and MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technologies. Higher bandwidth and spectral efficiency are keys to its success.  I’ve recorded 30Mbps speeds on my 4G device, though theoretical speeds are more than ten times faster.  And with continued enhancements like carrier aggregation and 256 QAM, LTE is getting faster all the time.

Figure 1. All these people need bandwidth. In a 5G system, users 1 and 2 are likely to get a different beam than the others. (Image courtesy of Nokia)

Which leads us to 5G.  To make a similar jump in bandwidth and spectral efficiency, 5G will need to adopt some radical technologies, at least by today’s standards. For a more detailed overview of 5G, I recommend reading Steve Taranovich’s recent article “5G base station architecture, Part 1: Evolution”.  It’s an excellent summary of the latest 5G issues, fresh from the Brooklyn 5G Summit.

Now I will summarize the major technical thrusts of 5G, particularly for the air interface.

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