5G Test Equipment Race Begins

Next-gen wireless communications technology is still under development, but instrument suppliers are ready to test 5G in trial deployments.

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Test and measurement vendors stand ready to help with the development and deployment of 5G wireless communications, as the technology is fine-tuned and tested in trials around the world.

Juniper Research forecasts 5G operator-billed service revenues will rise to $269 billion by 2025, compared with $851 million in 2019, for a compound annual growth rate of 161% during the first seven years of 5G service. The market research firm ranks the “most promising” 5G network operators as SK Telecom, NTT DoCoMo, KT Corp., China Mobile, and AT&T Mobility, in that order. North America, China and Eastern Asia, and Western Europe will dominate the 5G market, according to Juniper.

The key verticals in 5G will be augmented reality and virtual reality, automotive, digital health wearables, mobile broadband, smart cities, and smart homes, Juniper predicts.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, will see some of the first extensive use of 5G in covering the quadrennial games.

Anritsu, Keysight Technologies, National Instruments, Rohde & Schwarz, Astronics, Spirent, and Tektronix are among the leading vendors offering instruments, software, and services for testing 5G or 5G-related components.

Frost & Sullivan forecasts the market for PXI-based instruments for electronic test applications will grow to nearly $1.8 billion a year by 2020, up from around $1 billion this year, for a CAGR of 17.6% from 2013 to 2020. Part of that growth will be driven by 5G testing, the market research firm says.

“The future 5G world will be one of high connectivity and extreme communications, the likes of which we have never seen before,” said Keith Cobler, industry marketing manager for mobile wireless at Rohde & Schwarz USA. “Unlike previous mobile network technology turns, 5G will not be a ‘rip-and-replace’ of existing 4G/LTE networks, but instead will co-exist and serve as the cornerstone from which many of the 5G use cases and applications will be delivered around ultra-broadband, low-latency and massive machine-type communications. In fact, much of the underlying technology for 5G already has been introduced (and implemented in some cases) from 3GPP releases 12, 13 and 14. No doubt, 5G will take these technologies and concepts and expand upon them, taking them to a much higher level, especially for those applications utilizing millimeter-wave frequencies.”

Rohde & Schwarz has introduced more than a half-dozen products in the past year addressing the 5G testing market – network analyzers, oscilloscopes, signal analyzers, and other instruments. The portfolio includes products for over-the-air testing, such as antenna positioners, measurement antennas, radio-frequency chambers of different sizes, and vector network analyzers.

Challenges ahead
On the face of it, this is more evolutionary than revolutionary. “If you compare standards, there’s not much difference in the less-than-6-GHz frequency range,” said Anil Bhalla, senior manager at Astronics. “In manufacturing, it depends on the test coverage necessary to produce nearly defect-free unit shipments. There is a lot of hype going into the use of microwave frequencies for global coverage. It’s difficult to predict how much test will be required, but the expectation is for lower cost of test—despite the increase in RF complexity.”

Not everything is expected to go so smoothly, however.

“We can likely predict some problems by learning from the transition in 3G to 4G applications,” Bhalla said. “For example, higher data rates, higher frequency will likely impose performance problems on the semiconductor ecosystem. Less latency in 5G will require careful consideration before deployments.  Also, we’re likely to see new problems emerge as a result of miniaturization, such as system-in-package. And the connection between antennas, front end modules and transceivers will continue to cause variability, especially if those antennas become integrated with a FEM and transceivers.  This last packaging technology trend will likely require advancement in over-the-air test methodologies to produce more repeatable results that reveal defects.”

The list goes on. “Major aspects include consolidation on the technology, the discrepancy between 3GPP standardization approach and the 5G trial initiative, and also the spectrum allocation worldwide to have a clear picture what spectrum will be used,” said Rohde & Schwarz’s Cobler. “Additionally, a major challenge is the complexity. LTE-A is coming with many new and very interesting features (e.g., NB-IoT, LTE-V, LAA, eMTC, etc.), and at the same time, R&D is progressing with 5G research.”

Still, 5G adds a whole new layer of possibilities. “We see a paradigm change in 5G evolution, including the removal of the cable by connecting a device-under-test (DUT) to a test instrument,” Cobler added. “At higher frequencies, there won’t be any connectors anymore. Techniques like beamforming require an over-the-air connection to the DUT. That means we do get another dimension into our world, the direction of arrival. R&S has submitted this change request to the standardization group, and we are working with our partners to cover this aspect in the 5G test specification of the future.”

Dorine Gurney, a product planner for Tektronix, is ready for another technology transition in wireless communications. While the market for 5G test equipment is “not huge” at the moment, she noted that Tek is working with industry partners to anticipate their needs as the 5G standard is crafted and realized.

“When you look at the overall 5G and some of the issues—going after the millimeter-wave area and phased arrays—this is not something really new,” Gurney said. “What is new is all the new waveforms. The question really for the industry is how to make this equipment more affordable, especially in the manufacturing area.”

Tek is developing instrumentation to test backhaul applications at 60 gigahertz, according to Gurney. She added that the question Tek has for customers is, “What kind of measurements are you trying to do?” The company aims to “help spectrum managers to figure out what’s going on,” she said.

National Instruments is all over 5G testing, as well.

“The standard is not fully ratified,” said David Hall, senior group manager for test systems at National Instruments. “There’s more information we have than ever on what the waveform looks like, and frequency. We do see people in the semiconductor industry starting to work on the RF infrastructure. We see people more from the base station side, working on devices like transceivers, power amplifiers, radios, antennas, and that type of thing. From the state of 5G test, a lot of these individuals are looking at extremely wideband instrumentation that has the capability to generate and analyze the 5G waveforms.”

At last month’s International Microwave Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii, NI demonstrated pre-5G waveform generation and measurement technology, providing signal generation and analysis of waveforms associated with the Verizon 5G Technical Forum and 3GPP’s proposed New Radio physical layers.

“The 3GPP standards body, as part of the standard’s definition, defines what the waveform looks like for the handsets and the base stations,” Hall said. “One of the big attributes of that waveform that’s relevant to the testing point of view is the bandwidth. The design behind 5G is to deliver higher throughput, to both the user and the aggregate, and one of the mechanisms it does that with is wider bandwidth signal.”

Some of the technical challenges to testing 5G have been figured out already, Hall noted. “Some, like generating and analyzing wideband signals, are being figured out. The biggest unknown at this point surrounds millimeter wave. When you ask engineers, particularly in production test where you’re testing parts at high volume, there’s still a lot of uncertainty over whether or not those sessions are going to be done over the air, if they’re going to be done at near-field, what types of fixturing or chambers need to be present. There are a lot of questions about how you test for beamforming, which is a key attribute of the radios themselves. One of the attributes of using a 28 or 40 or 74 gigahertz carrier signal, is that the propagation distances aren’t as far as they are at 1 or 2 gigahertz, which is what we use today for mobile communications. Because of that, many of these designs are using beamforming techniques where you have multiple antennas on the steering beam in a particular direction. That’s not something you can measure through a cable measurement, like you could with a 3G rating, 4G rating, fiber. You have a single antenna; just measure the output and the decline. There are a lot of challenges associated with understanding the most cost-effective technique to measure some of these devices under test, in areas like beamforming and really high frequency.”

Hall said that in the short term, the big opportunities are in the wideband signal generator market. “The reason for this is traditional test and measurement vendors charge literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for bandwidth. If you look at the pricing model of traditional benchtop instruments, you can expect to pay on the order of a thousand dollars a megahertz of bandwidth. In dealing with the world of LTE and some of the earlier Wi-Fi, that was sort of acceptable from a market dynamic. What happens with 5G is that it’s requiring instruments to have upward of 500 to 600 megahertz of bandwidth, which is historically a huge premium of a cost perspective from the instrumentation side. There’s a huge opportunity, and because of the cost there are not a lot of instruments out there that can even do it. The deployment of the 5G standard is going to cause all of the people testing 4G products to upgrade test equipment to support wider bandwidth and new waveforms. The new waveforms bit is actually pretty straightforward, because of the software. But the bandwidth requirement is fairly expensive using traditional instruments. The real market opportunity is because the traditional instruments can’t do 5G test, all of the engineers doing 5G test are going to need to upgrade. This has happened before. We saw this happen with LTE, we saw this happen with 802.11ac, and it actually happened with WiMAX, 10 years ago.”

The race to provide 5G test equipment is on. Test equipment companies, start your engines.