Cables And Connectors Make Microwave Links

April 15, 2005
These essential transmission-line components are available from an amazingly large number of suppliers, although these products offer varied features and benefits.

Cables for microwave applications come in many lengths and sizes, and with a variety of connector options. Suppliers offer everything from spools of unterminated cables to specific lengths of assemblies with connectors, and even phase-matched sets of cable assemblies. What follows is a brief review of microwave cable assemblies for general-purpose system and measurement applications.

In their excellent tutorial text, Practical RF Circuit Design for Modern Wireless Systems (ISBN: 1-58053-521-6, Artech House,, authors Les Besser and Rowan Gilmore use the analogy of rice traveling through a blowgun to represent the behavior of electromagnetic (EM) waves propagating through a transmission line, such as a cable. In a relatively narrow tube, the rice can only travel in one form. But if the diameter of the tube is increased, the rice can travel in more random patterns, slowing the speed of propagation. The effect is much the same for microwave cables, where the diameter of the cable will determine the frequency of propagation. Larger-diameter cables may support a greater flow of energy (higher power), but will be limited in frequency compared to smaller-diameter cables. For that reason, raw-cable and cable-assembly suppliers offer products with a variety of different diameters, based on the upper-frequency requirements of their customers' applications.

For example, LMR-240 cable from Times Microwave Systems is a low-loss flexible microwave cable designed for communications applications. The cable consists of a copper inner conductor with aluminum tape outer conductor, tinned copper outer braid, and ultraviolet (UV) resistant polyethylene jacket. It has a diameter of 0.24 in. and has a cutoff frequency of 31 GHz. The cable, which is available with a wide range of coaxial connectors, is rated for peak power of 5.6 kW. Compare this to the larger-diameter 0.4-in. LMR-400 cable, which has a cutoff frequency of 16.2 GHz but is rated for power levels to 16 kW. Since these are flexible cables, they are also characterized in terms of minimum bend radius, which is 0.75 in. for the LMR-240 and 1.0 in. for the LMR-400.

Cable assemblies are also rated in terms of attenuation (usually per foot or per 100 feet of cable), average power-handling capability, velocity of propagation, time delay, voltage withstanding capability, and shielding effectiveness (SE). The attenuation plot for most cables resembles a straight line with positive slope in the direction of increasing frequency, since loss tends to increase as a linear function of frequency. Conversely, a plot of average power-handling capability will resemble a straight line with negative slope in the direction of increasing frequency, since the average power-handling capability diminishes with increasing frequency. Using the LMR-240 cable as an example, the attenuation per 100 feet is 1.7 dB at 50 MHz, rising to 7.6 dB at 900 MHz, and 20.4 dB at 5.8 GHz. The average power-handling capability is 1.15 kW at 50 MHz, dropping to 0.26 kW at 900 MHz, and 0.1 kW at 5.8 GHz. The company's larger-diameter LMR-400 cables exhibit attenuation per 100 feet of 0.9 dB at 50 MHz, rising to 3.9 dB at 900 MHz, and 10.8 dB at 5.8 GHz. The average power-handling capability is 2.57 kW at 50 MHz, dropping to 0.58 kW at 900 MHz, and 0.21 kW at 5.8 GHz.

While the LMR series cables are nominally aimed at communications systems applications, the company's SilverLine™ test cables have been developed for measurement use. Test applications, of course, bring demanding requirements for cable assemblies, since accuracy and repeatability must be maintained over time and environment conditions, such as temperature. Cable assemblies developed for testing, in particular flexible cable assemblies, are usually characterized in terms of how performance holds up after repeated mating and unmating cycles and with cable flexure. Test cables typically include two or three shielding layers in order to achieve high SE performance.

Numerous suppliers offer flexible cables, semirigid cables, and a third category of cables known as conformable or hand-formable cables, which approach the electrical performance of semirigid cables while maintaining some of the formable convenience of flexible cables (see table). For example, aluminum cables, such as the Easy Bend II cables from Haverhill Cable and Manufacturing Corp., can be hand formed with minimal spring back. The Easy Bend II cables are qualified to MIL-C-17 requirements for military and space applications.

Insulated Wire offers a number of different series of cables, from the low-frequency 480 series (with maximum frequency of 11 GHz) to the high-frequency 125 series cables (with maximum frequency to 60 GHz). GrooveTube cables from MegaPhase are flexible test cables fabricated with copper outer conductors. Available for applications from DC to 50 GHz, the cables can be supplied with metal braid over metal armor for additional ruggedness.

Some firms specialize in raw cables or cable assemblies but not connectors. Others provide connectors but not cables. For example, Semflex offers both bulk cables and finished cable assemblies, including HPT series high-performance test cable assemblies to 40 GHz and HPI Series high-performance interconnect cable assemblies to 40 GHz. Harbour Industries, a supplier to many cable-assembly manufacturers, produces a wide range of cable types, including flexible and semirigid cables, but not connectors. Amphenol RF, although strongly associated with its extensive lines of coaxial connectors, also offers cable assemblies. Firms such as Florida RS Technology provide essentially custom cable-assembly solutions. The firm, a contract manufacturer specializing in cable assemblies and wire harnesses, boasts a long list of commercial and military customers including BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, IBM, and Intel. Some companies, such as Anritsu Co., Applied Engineering Products, Maury Microwave, Sabritec, San-tron, Southwest Microwave, SRI Connector, SV Microwave, and Trompeter, specialize in connectors. And some firms, such as Federal Custom Cable, offer not only raw cables, but also connectors and cable assemblies, in addition to a lineup of coaxial components such as adapters, attenuators, and bias tees.

The largest number of suppliers in the table provides cable assemblies based on either standard commercial coaxial connectors or proprietary connector designs. EZ Form Cable Corp., for example, offers extensive lines of miniature and military-grade copper- and aluminum-jacketed semirigid coaxial cables as well as delay lines. The firm also supplies EZ Flex™ flexible cables and EZ Formable™ hand-formable cables in 0.086-, 0.141-, and 0.25-in. diameters for applications through 30 GHz. Astrolab's Minibend® and Microbend™ flexible coaxial cable assemblies are promoted as cost-effective alternatives to 0.086-in. and 0.047-in.-diameter semirigid cable assemblies, respectively. These flexible cables eliminate the need for predefined custom lengths and bend configurations. The new, smaller-diameter cables feature a frequency range to 65 GHz with triple shielding for high SE. The firm offers assemblies with a wide range of connectors, including SMPM, SMP, 1.85-mm, and 2.9-mm connectors. All Microbend assemblies are also available in a ruggedized version (Microbend R) for use in severe stress environments.

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Trilogy Communications offers AirCell® as its version of flexible coaxial cable. The 0.5-in.-diameter cable is designed for rugged, high-power applications. With a copper-clad aluminum center conductor and corrugated aluminum outer conductor, AirCell cables are protected by a black polyethylene outer jacket. Designed for use through 10 GHz, the cables have a peak power rating of 35 kW. The attenuation is 0.39 dB per 100 feet at 30 MHz and 4.51 dB per 100 feet at 3000 MHz. The minimum bend radius for these heft cables is 3.5 in. On a smaller scale, M/A-COM's FA12X flexible cable, which is designed for applications from DC to 50 GHz (depending upon the type of connector), has a minimum bend radius of 0.36 in.

Specializing in cables for commercial, aerospace/military, and test applications, W.L. Gore & Associates assists specifiers with the "Gore Microwave Cable Assembly Builder" on their website ( The handy utility program allows visitors to the site to build a cable assembly complete with different connector options, cable options, and assembly lengths, and compare performance levels. Once a design has been completed, it can be submitted to the company electronically for a price/delivery quote.

Similarly, the Andrew Corp. website offers a free copy of the firm's CableMaster software for planning base station systems. The software provides all the information needed to design complete transmission-line systems. It includes specifications and prices for all of the cables, connectors, and assemblies in the company's catalog, and allows users to view key performance parameters, such as insertion loss and power-handling capability, in tabular or graphical form. And for those in search of information above and beyond cable specifications, Southwest Microwave's website offers an extensive list of sites for additional information on microwave technology, including many fun items such as experiments that can be performed at home.

One of the newest suppliers of flexible test cables is perhaps better known for their extensive lines of surface-mount and coaxial active and passive RF components. Mini-Circuits recently jointed the test cable competition with their CBL-Series of flexible test cables. Available in standard lengths of 2, 3, and 6 feet with combinations of Type N and SMA connectors, the test cables are suitable for use with test equipment and automatic-test-equipment (ATE) systems from DC to 18 GHz.

In addition to advances in cable technology, engineering work continues on refining the cable's terminations—the connectors. A number of companies have announced recent improvements to connector technology, especially in the area of quick connect/disconnect blind-mate type connectors. For example, the QN connectors from Radiall provide performance superior to Type N connectors for next-generation telecommunications systems. They are optimized from DC to 6 GHz. Simpler to install than screw-on Type N connectors. The QN connectors employ a snap-on mating system, and do not require a torque wrench. Connections can be made in about two seconds, or about 10 times faster than the installation of a Type N connector. Connectors are smaller than traditional Type N connectors, allowing for dense mounting arrangements.

Huber & Suhner QN (for Quick Type N) connectors mate quickly with high packaging density and without tools, offering extremely low intermodulation distortion (IMD). Optimized for frequencies to 6 GHz, but usable through 11 GHz, the QN interface is based on the inner dimensions of the Type N connector, but instead of a threaded coupling mechanism, the QN connector employs a snap-on mechanism. Since no torque spanner is required to fasten the coupling nut of the QN connectors, greater packaging density can be achieved than with conventional Type N connectors. Additionally, the outer dimensions of QN are smaller than N, offering the advantage that TNC-sized flanges can be used on QN connectors. For users of smaller, SMA connectors, the company also offers the QMA quick-lock connectors with performance similar to SMA connectors through 18 GHz.

German connector house Rosenberger recently signed a licensing agreement with Huber & Suhner AG and Radiall for the manufacture of QMA connectors. As part of the agreement, Rosenberger is authorized to act as a QLF® manufacturer: this new QLF® standard (Quick Lock Formula) guarantees full intermateability between connectors produced by the licensing parties.

Rosenberger's QMA connectors are designed for applications up to 18 GHz. The quick lock coupling mechanism enables fast, easy, and reliable connections in the tightest spaces, the spectrum covers jacks and plugs for cable assembly, panel mounting, and PCB mounting, even in SMT technology. Straight and right-angle types are available, as well as terminations and adaptors. Additionally, the firm has designed QMA jacks with slotted outer contacts, to make sure that outer conductor contact is constantly maintained.

The RF Connector Division of RF Industries, Inc. recently announced their own QMA series connectors. Similar in size to SMA connectors, the QMA has an internal configuration with a snap-on interface and needs no tooling for mating and unmating. The connector features a sliding snap-lock mechanism that works by sliding the shell back and releasing to lock both connectors in place. This eliminates space between connectors needed for tooling. After they are mated, the QMA connectors can be rotated 360 deg. Designed to mate with all QMA jacks, they offer good electrical performance up to 6 GHz. The QMA connector is available in straight and right-angle body styles and feature albaloy plated brass bodies, Teflon® insulation, spring copper alloy outer contacts and gold plated pins. The QMA series is available with crimp on attachment for RG-58/U and LMR-195 cable (RQA-5000-C straight, RQA-5010-C right angle), and RG-8/X and LMR-240 cable (RQA-5000-X straight, RQA-5010-X right angle).

Winchester Electronics (division of Northrop Grumman) recently announced their WSML subminiature locking RF connectors for applications from DC to 12 GHz. These snap-lock quick connect/disconnect connectors are designed to replace threaded SMA connectors in cable-to-panel and cable-to-PCB applications. They suffer only 0.052 dB insertion loss from DC to 3 GHz and only 0.099 dB insertion loss from 6 to 12 GHz. The return loss is better than 29 dB from DC to 3 GHz and 23.7 dB from 6 to 12 GHz. The company also recently introduced a series of reverse-polarity RF connectors designed for the requirements of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Rule 15.203. FCC regulations state that wireless devices with removable antennas must have a unique coupling design to secure the antenna to a transmitter. The reverse-polarity connectors meet this requirement with female contacts in the plug connectors and male contacts in the jack connectors. The new reverse-polarity connectors are usable from DC to 18 GHz.

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