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One of the running jokes on the floor of the recent first-ever EDI CON USA exhibition (which took place Sept. 20-22 at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center) centered on Fifth-Generation (5G) wireless communications systems and the RF/microwave industry’s enormous anticipation of what this latest wireless technology will mean to the industry.
The new technology—once developed, and once standards have been set—is meant to provide new levels of wireless communications capabilities to accommodate increasing numbers of wireless network users and their growing hunger for sending and receiving data. The joke was this: Are you ready for 6G?
However, when the laughter subsided, most of the exhibitors and attendees acknowledged that 5G was coming and that test-equipment designers and suppliers were carrying a heavy load, trying to meet the expected test requirements of 5G wireless systems. In fact, the expected needs of next-generation wireless networks are shaping the next generation of RF/microwave test equipment.
Growing reliance on wireless technology is driving the need for 5G wireless networks with performance that greatly exceeds what is presently possible, so that users can have instant internet access from their mobile wireless devices—anywhere and at any time. Next-generation wireless networks promise fast internet connections and data rates of greater than 1 Gb/s for multiple users in the same location, with negligible data latency compared to current Fourth-Generation (4G) Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless technology.
Of course, not all wireless connections will be by humans. A great deal of network capacity will be consumed by wireless sensor networks populated by Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices monitoring everything from daylight to vibrations over walkways.
The new wireless networks and their components will present numerous challenges for test-equipment companies, due not only to the need for achieving wide bandwidths and high performance levels in many components, but to the implementation of a number of technologies not so widely used at present: millimeter-wave frequencies, multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas, and phased-array antennas.
Some representatives at various test-and-measurement companies noted that some of these advanced technologies have been part of military radar and electronic-warfare systems for some time. But, as with the movement of millimeter-wave signals and radar systems from purely military applications to increasing use in automotive safety systems, the measurement community must now develop practical, cost-effective methods for measuring different types and frequencies of signals used in commercial and industrial applications.
The influence of the growing use of millimeter-wave signals by the automotive industry, for example, could be readily seen in the growing number of test solutions above 30 GHz on the EDICON 2016 exhibition floor. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already approved bandwidth through 60 GHz for 5G systems, to enable backhaul links between small cells and base stations to support the tremendous data rates and capacity expected for 5G systems.
If automotive applications haven’t made the use of millimeter-wave frequencies “routine,” the build-up of 5G networks certainly will. RF/microwave test-equipment suppliers seeking to compete will need signal generators and analyzers capable of operating to 60 GHz and beyond.
The ways in which signals are transmitted and received in 5G systems—using phased-array techniques and MIMO antennas, which are essentially multiple antennas within a single housing—will also impact the requirements of future test equipment, boosting the need for measurement gear with multiple channels and enhanced measurement speeds to scan and process multiple signals with a number of different modulation formats.
These fundamental test requirements for 5G do not even touch upon the measurement needs for what are expected to be billions of IoT devices with different types of sensors using low-power wireless links to connect to the internet. The common vision of 5G is to have sensors everywhere—that can be accessed via internet, using a smartphone or other wireless device—to check on such things as whether a home or office thermoset is properly set or a garage door is open.
The benefits certainly sound wonderful. But all of those wireless devices must be tested before they are installed (and continuously tested once installed) to check for such things as interference to other devices, or their own performance degradation because of interference from other devices.
The 6G reference brought a great deal of laughter at EDICON 2016. But most of the test-and-measurement equipment suppliers were not laughing when they talked about the work that would be going into test solutions for 5G.