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(Image courtesy of National Instruments).

For Prototyping, New Software-Defined Radio for Millimeter Waves

National Instruments released new radio heads that can be swapped into its millimeter wave transceiver system to measure how these high frequencies are affected by trees, buildings, cars, and people.

National Instruments’ radio heads operate over the 28 gigahertz frequency band, which exists much higher on the wireless spectrum than the scarce and expensive low frequency bands now used in communications. But wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon are increasingly targeting the band and higher ones for 5G networks.

Starting in 2012, National Instruments partnered with Nokia to build 73 GHz radio heads for testing and prototyping. Tapping into the 28 GHz band takes little more than plugging in the new devices, since the software is compatible between the radio heads. (National Instruments also has 60 GHz heads for the transceiver).

"We knew we would need something modular where we could change the frequency bands," said Sarah Yost, a product marketing manager at National Instruments, in an interview. “We gave it a flexible [intermediate frequency] so that we could tune into new radios in the future."

The new radio heads follow a recent announcement that AT&T had used the prototyping system to build a tool for tapping into 28 GHz spectrum. The tool, called Porcupine for its crown of horn antennas, is helping the wireless carrier with tricky tasks like connecting vehicles and planning where to position 5G equipment for best coverage.

The decision to target the new radio heads at 28 GHz spectrum also came from projects around the wireless industry, Yost said. This week, National Instruments showed the radio heads running a 5G specification that Verizon published separately this year from the formal standards process. The company next plans to release 39 GHz radio heads.

These millimeter waves have hard-to-ignore qualities, including more breathing room for smartphone and other mobile communications. But millimeter waves cannot pass through buildings and walls and are absorbed more quickly by oxygen than lower bands. “On the trade-off, they provide significantly higher bandwidth," Yost said.

In the view of telecom regulators and wireless carriers, the benefits are worth fighting for. Last year, officials in the United States voted to slice open new spectrum above 28 GHz. In recent months, wireless carriers have been bare-knuckle brawling for the rights to millimeter waves: Verizon recently won a $3.1 billion bidding war for Straight Path, a major holder of 28 and 39 GHz licenses.

The software inside National Instruments’ platform also contains a physical communications layer that follows the rules of the proposed 5G standard. The physical layer is available as source code in LabView, National Instruments’ graphical programming environment.

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