Electronic Design
Prototyping Our Way to 5G Reality

Prototyping Our Way to 5G Reality

We’re seeing 5G technologies move forward to address today’s wireless-communications challenges, and the vision of an Internet for everyone and everything comes more in focus every day.

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Mike Santori, Vice President of Product Marketing, National Instruments

In past articles, I’ve written quite a bit about the Internet of Things (IoT). They’ve centered around how you and your company need to adopt a platform-based test approach to prepare for the test challenges caused by the rapid change in device capabilities and integration of many technologies. I haven’t, however, talked much about the technologies driving and enabling the IoT.

With the introduction of the iPhone, wireless data became an indispensable part of everyday life for many. The transformational impact of the “Mobile Internet” seemingly came out of nowhere, as others quickly followed Apple’s lead and introduced highly functional smart devices. We reveled in all of the new and useful things we could do with our mobile devices.

Who still carries an iPod or even stores music on their phone anymore? I certainly don’t. I just use Spotify to stream my music of choice; I now have more than 20 million songs at my fingertips, whether I’m sitting in a coffee shop or driving across West Texas on vacation. Furthermore, I can FaceTime my daughter while she is away at college, even if she happens to be walking down 2nd Avenue in Manhattan when I call.

I’m sure I’m just like you in that I take all of this technological innovation we have in 2015 for granted. But I’m also sure that you share my aggravation when it doesn’t work the way you want it to—like when my phone shows five bars of signal strength and the availability of LTE, but a simple text message won’t go through (Fig. 1). Those are the times when I wonder how we’re ever going to support the estimated 50 billion devices by 2020 that will somehow connect and exchange our exabytes (that’s billions of gigabytes) of data.

1. Here’s an undelivered text message with full Wi-Fi and cellular signal.

Today’s 4G networks that incorporate the latest wireless technologies continue to provide us with faster, more reliable data access. Still, the road ahead beyond LTE and LTE-A is far from paved. Rapid consumption of wireless data continues to outpace the industry’s ability to meet the burgeoning demand, but faster data and greater access are only part of the story.

The Mobile Internet has painted a picture of continued innovation, inspiring researchers all over the world to think beyond faster data and greater capacity. These new networks, referred to as fifth generation, or 5G, promise to transform our lives, yet again.

Addressing Real-World Challenges

Defining 5G has created lots of excitement, with much of that attention centered on faster data rates. However, 5G has a much broader agenda. In addition to faster data rates, 5G will accommodate significantly more connected users and devices (100X or more) and aim to reduce network latency. Solving these less publicized challenges is key to unlocking the IoT’s enormous potential.

The research today to address 5G challenges is already showing promise, but the road ahead is long. Given the broad range of needs and objectives, there are many ideas currently undergoing research around the world. Technologies such as new 5G waveforms, network densification, massive MIMO, and mmWave communications may be incrementally deployed along a time curve, and as such, are not mutually exclusive and may be complimentary (Fig. 2). These 5G technologies are moving forward and the vision of an Internet for everyone and everything comes closer to reality every day.

What’s particularly exciting to me is that the goals of 5G aren’t simply to optimize a technical specification like peak bandwidth. It’s about solving real-world issues of connectivity, speed, reliability, capacity, and the like.

2. The four vectors of 5G technology currently being researched are pushing forward the Internet for everyone and everything.

To prove out potential technologies, researchers need the tools to design and rapidly prototype their concepts faster to expedite time-to-market, and ultimately time-to-deployment. With the complex conditions in which we want wireless communications to work, researchers can’t simply work in the mathematical world, running simulations. They need the ability to actually prototype their technologies and test them under real-world conditions to see how they perform outside of the laboratory.

Prototyping: An Essential 5G Research Approach

NI has had the great opportunity over the last few years to work with researchers from leading companies and universities around the world, including Nokia, Samsung, Intel, TU Dresden, and NYU Wireless. These organizations are already working to advance 5G technologies by prototyping real-world systems.

Prototyping a wireless-communications system is a daunting technical undertaking, even more so when the technologies involved are in research and don’t actually exist in existing tools and products. While the mathematical modeling and simulation of communications algorithms is straightforward enough, getting those algorithms to execute on a real-time target with high-performance I/O isn’t so easy.

To innovate faster than their competition, researchers need every advantage possible. That means leveraging IP from previous research and leveraging a hardware and software platform that lets them build on an existing infrastructure and not have to start from scratch. It also means they need a platform that seamlessly melds algorithm design and physical prototyping, with tight integration to hardware targets that can meet the demanding needs of wireless communication.

NI developed and has continuously evolved a design, test, and prototyping platform based on the LabVIEW RIO architecture. It tightly integrates our LabVIEW graphical system design software with high-performance hardware that includes FPGAs for demanding computational and I/O aspects. This approach is enabling researchers to focus on developing their ideas and quickly try them out in the real world, as opposed to relying only on simulations or trying to create custom hardware to run their algorithms.

3. At NIWeek 2015, Nokia researchers demonstrated 10-Gb/s mmWave data rates using PXI and LabVIEW.

As just one example, Nokia and NI recently collaborated to develop the fastest cellular 5G technology ever prototyped at peak speeds of 10 Gb/s, which is 40 times faster than 4G technology (Fig. 3). To provide a frame of reference, a user can download a two-hour HD video in 40 minutes using today’s highest-speed networks in good conditions; with this demonstrated speed of 10 Gb/s, a user could download this same video in under a minute.

The Road to Reality

We’re seeing 5G technologies move forward to address today’s wireless-communications challenges, and the vision of an Internet for everyone and everything comes more in focus every day. As with any new wireless technology, the transition from concept to prototype impacts the time to actual deployment and commercialization. The faster researchers can build 5G prototypes, the faster these designs can be mass-manufactured and tested, and most importantly, the sooner we can take advantage of the faster data rates, decreased latency, and reliable connectivity.

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