If you are reading this post, then you probably have heard about “4G”, the 4th generation cellular network. For a cell phone user, 4G means improved data speeds that allow faster delivery of multimedia-based applications, see our previous post, What is 4G?, for more details. On the other hand, the network operator desires to spend a minimum on upgrading network infrastructure and prefers to buy a backhaul solution that supports current and near future capacity demands of a cellular network.
Thus, it is important to improve the capacity of wireless backhaul links. To increase transmission capacity, wider channel spacing can be used. However the wireless spectrum is expensive and may not be available in some countries. Using transmission in high frequency bands, such as 60 GHz and above, provides the bandwidth needed to increase capacity. However, very high radio frequencies increase the cost of radio components. In addition, 60 GHz links limit transmission range due to high absorption of radio waves by the atmosphere, making this solution somewhat cost inefficient. One efficient way of improving the capacity of a communication link is to increase the order of the digital communication modulation scheme used for transmission.
In simple terms, digital modulation is the process of mapping a group of data bits into an information symbol that gets transmitted, after up-conversion to the radio frequency (RF) of the link. The most popular digital modulation scheme used in wireless radios is known as quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). For a given symbol rate, increasing the modulation order, or equivalently packing more bits per symbol, would be an effective way to increase the capacity of a microwave link. For example, each symbol in a 64-QAM signal represents 6 data bits, while for 256-QAM and 1024-QAM signals it represents 8 and 10 data bits, respectively. Therefore, 1024-QAM provides (theoretically) a 25 percent increase in capacity over 256-QAM and an impressive 67 percent increase in capacity compared to 64-QAM.
The price paid for achieving such an increase in capacity is more complex signal processing algorithms and stricter requirements for channel quality, e.g. higher signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) at the receiver is required. In that case, increasing the modulation order for some networks under normal operating conditions can have a diminishing return on throughput. This is due to the fact that the required SNR for an acceptable receiver performance rarely can be met.
Why this is the case? Let us briefly discuss the challenges in increasing the modulation order. Higher modulation order results in larger pool of symbols available for transmission. For example, for 64-QAM, there exists 64 symbols in a 2D grid (known as constellation points) compared to 1,024 symbols for 1024-QAM for the same grid size. Clearly, increasing the number of symbols (assuming fixed power) makes the symbols closer to each other in this 2D grid. Thus, data detection at the receiver becomes more susceptible to errors due to impairment.
In practical terms, receiver circuits are affected by thermal noise, clipping and non-linearity of power amplifiers, phase noise and many other distortions that are beyond the scope of this post. It is worth mentioning that increasing the signal power beyond some limits results in actually decreasing the received SNR since many of these distortions associated with RF circuits are dependent on the transmitted power. Rather, the way to increase the modulation order is to improve the detection schemes and build circuits that are less susceptible to power-related distortions, along with improving the correction mechanisms at the receiver for phase noise and other impairments.
At Aviat Networks, we have the expertise and knowledge to build the highest quality microwave radios that can work at cutting edge signaling schemes. We will make sure that our customers see a sizable return—not a diminishing one from increasing the modulation order. Our pledge is that microwave backhaul will always exceed the capacity requirements of our customers.
Senior Signal Processing Engineer, Aviat Networks