Mobile World Congress: Opening Day
Larry Desjardin- February 27, 2013Look at any calendar, and you will see the month of February brings Ground Hog Day, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, …and Mobile World Congress! Abbreviated as MWC, each year over 60,000 titans and tinkerers of the mobile phone industry flock to Barcelona for the largest mobile phone event in the world. Joining them again in the land of sangria and tapas is me, your humble correspondent. My local airport of Steamboat Springs has yet to introduce direct flights to the city of Gaudi, so my day started early on snow packed roads to begin the necessary trio of flights. 20 hours later the ski slopes of my hometown were a distance memory as I exited customs in Barcelona.
Planning for such a trip is imperative. After setting up a communication center at my rental apartment, I walked a few blocks to pick up my tripNETer. This little device is a pocket hotspot to keep me connected during the show. Best of all, it helps me avoid the outrageous roaming charges for international travelers. The roaming freedom allowed me to “tweet” the event live, and readers can follow my tweets here.
Off to the show to check out the new venue and pick up my badge. The new conference area is HUGE. It is a city in its own right. The Samsung booth itself may have been larger than all of Autotestcon. Another Mobile World Congress had begun!
Larry following up on a hot tip at Mobile World Congress
First stop on “Opening Day” was NI (National Instruments). I say “Opening Day” in quotes, because I will actually cover the event as two articles. This first article will group the traditional vendors of product test, while the second edition a week later will look at network testing.
NI toured me around their demo stations. First one showcased the new VST (Vector Signal Transceiver). No, not the one they introduced in August at NI Week, a new one announced that morning. Four slots instead of three, the new PXIe-5645R VST adds baseband I/Q access. This allows the user to use the baseband generator as an AWG (arbitrary waveform generator) or drive the signal generator from their own baseband source. There are a lot of applications for users needing IQ access directly. Being displayed was an application testing LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation.
Next demo was 802.11ac 160MHz test combining two VSTs. It is a feature enabled by PXI that more channels or carriers may be added just by plugging in more VSTs. Since carrier aggregation may be intra-band or inter-band, allowing arbitrary mix and match of VSTs is a real plus. I was particularly intrigued that they were using an iPad as a “bench” display by deploying Data Dashboard on it. I had a mental model that modular instrumentation addressed the automated segments, not the manual bench segments. However, the beauty and the ease of use of the iPad have made me reconsider.
Signalion, a recent acquisition of NI, performed the third demo. Cellular towers are moving to deploying remote radio heads next to the antenna, with a fiber cable back to the smarts of a base station. Signalion “sniffs” the signals on the fiber link, which uses a protocol called CPRI. They are able to display the uplink spectrum, which is useful for troubleshooting and maintenance. The two companies (now one) claim that they are integrating the knowhow from Signalion into the NI product line. Prediction: expect to see Signalion functionality come out on PXI.
Final demo was from Gefle Testteknik, a Swedish partner of NI’s. They were demonstrating a small cell base station tester using the VST and other NI PXI products. By accessing the FPGA on NI PXI instruments, they were deploying special test code that could test multiple formats simultaneously. This results in speed, which leads to lower cost of test, and lower manufacturing cost. Beyond modular instruments, I think user programmable FPGAs in test equipment is the next architectural disruption, and this is a great example of the benefits.
Next on my list was meeting Ali Sadri of the WiGig (Wireless Gigabit) Alliance. WiGig can be thought of as a next generation Wi-Fi standard. It uses 60GHz and deploys very wide bandwidth (2GHz) and real-time beam forming. WiGig just merged with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which raises its chances of success dramatically. While the industry focus has been on 802.11ac, watch out the next wave. By 2014, there will be significant demand for new test equipment as vendors ramp up WiGig development. It is not just for data streaming; expect to see it in docking stations and set top boxes. Test vendors: you have been warned.
Rohde & Schwarz
My next stop was R&S (Rohde & Schwarz). R&S was making a number of introductions at MWC. My single net impression was how they were leveraging the internally modular CMW500 to address a wide set of applications. Signal generation, analysis, fading, MIMO, carrier aggregation- they are all part of the CMW500’s repertoire.
I’ve mentioned carrier aggregation earlier. This is an aspect of LTE-Advanced. LTE supports carriers up to 20MHz wide, though 10MHz is today’s commercial limit. Carrier aggregation allows two carriers to be combined dynamically for a single user. They don’t have to be adjacent carriers; they don’t even have to be in the same frequency bands at all. Since LTE is focused on data services, this “on demand” doubling of the downlink data speeds noticeably improves the user experience. Using two carriers from any arbitrary frequency bands gives operators great freedom in dynamically giving the users this peak bandwidth.
R&S was demonstrating carrier aggregation combined with 4x2 and 2x2 MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) and fading. The numbers relate to the number of transmit and receive antennas. Snap the rear cover off of your smartphone and you may see two connectors that interface to the two antennas embedded in the case. The test equipment interfaces to these two ports. R&S performed an interesting demo that consisted of a video stream of an alpine skier being sent from the VTE video tester over an LTE MIMO data connection performed by the CMW500 to a smart phone, and then back to the VTE via MHL or HDMI. With the CMW500 they applied 3GPP fading scenarios. I could see the video image pixelate and freeze, depending on the scenario. The VTE was performing video quality analysis in real time. The combination delivered real video service quality analysis under realistic fading conditions, which matches the actual user experience. (See Plan and test for LTE-Advanced.)
Quickly downing an espresso, I walked to Agilent Technologies. Agilent had just completed the acquisition of AT4 wireless, headquartered in Malaga, Spain, and the AT4 product line was highlighted at the show. Aimed at RF conformance and design validation of LTE UEs (User Equipment such as handsets and tablets), the TS4000 series from AT4 comes in a benchtop unit for 70% coverage, and a single rack for 100% coverage. It performs TD-LTE (time division) and FD-LTE (frequency division) with up to 4x2 MIMO with fading on each cell.
Agilent also introduced multi-port capability for their EXT wireless test set. The EXT is essentially a one-box manufacturing test set for cell phones and other UEs. The 8 ports allow simultaneous testing of up to 8 single-antenna phones, or 4-up testing of 2-channel phones.
I was particularly interested in the new NFC (Near Field Communication) conformance test system that came with the AT4 acquisition. NFC is a type of RFID that is being standardized by the NFC Forum to enable consumer purchases from cell phones. Think of vending machines on up. Agilent has a test system that tests the conformance of the NFC patterns and interfaces. These rely on very precise mechanical tolerances. To test conformance to these tolerances, Agilent offers a precision automatic positioning robot built completely of non-magnetic materials.
The final surprise did not occur at the Agilent booth, but at the booth of ST-Ericsson. In a T&M World exclusive, I was allowed to view a demo of ST-Ericsson’s latest LTE Advanced modem, the Thor M7450. A tiny single module destined for handsets and other UE, it performs carrier aggregation, delivering 150Mbps over an extensive number of frequency bands. Testing the modem was an Agilent PXI system composed of their PXIe VSGs and the latest member of their PXI family- the M9252A MIPI DigRF Host Adapter. Essentially, this single-slot PXI module provides stimulus and capture of the up to 3Gbps MIPI digital serial stream commonly found on RFICs (RF Integrated Circuits). It is the digital version of the RF stream, and a critical interface for RFIC test. In the demo, ST-Ericsson had integrated the M9252A’s captured data with the Agilent 89600 VSA (Vector Signal Analyzer) software. The demo showed real-time spectrum and modulation analysis coming from the digital stream! A photo of the display integrated by ST-Ericsson can be found here. This product brings critical functionality in any format, but Agilent’s decision to bring it to market in PXIe is very telling to the commitment they have to the architecture.
My next stop was at Anritsu, where I explored the details of their recently announced MW82119A PIM Analyzer. What is a PIM Analyzer? PIM is short for passive intermodulation, and the MW82119 “PIM Master” is a portable instrument designed to find nonlinearities in antenna cable paths. Evidently, this is a big issue during the installation phase as loose connections or small amounts of oxide between metal contacts create a small semiconductor. At high power, these create intermodulation products that interfere with cellular bands, depending on the frequencies deployed. The PIM Master is designed to detect these, and also pinpoint physically where the nonlinearity exists. Battery operated and about the size of a lunch box, half of the space is taken up by a comb filter whose size is dictated by the physics of creating an ultra-sharp filter. One other tool is required by the technician making the measurement: a big wrench. During the measurement, a technician uses the wrench as a hammer, banging on the tower, while the PIM Master detects any dynamic distortion that could be caused by loose connections. I believe this, as I have used the “banging on electronics” technique for home repair nearly my entire life. Seriously, Anritsu has developed a product purpose-built for this critical task, with a display that can be seen in bright sunlight.
(See Anritsu's battery operated unit detects PIM)
My final stop for the day was Aeroflex. While frequent readers of “Outside the Box” know the aerospace related test sets from Aeroflex shown at such events as Autotestcon, Aeroflex highlights their wireless communication products at MWC. In the center of the stand were two 7100 base station emulators communicating with a TM500 handset emulator, demonstrating 2x2 MIMO inter-band carrier aggregation for LTE Advanced. The 7100 and TM500 are not officially named “emulators”, but are named Radio Test Set and Test Mobile respectively. I am using “emulators” to describe the function. Each 7100 was communicating on a different band, in this case Band 1 and Band 20, 2100Mhz and 800MHz respectively. The combination was demonstrating 72Mbps on each band, or 144Mbps total. This is near the theoretical limit for 10MHz carriers.
Aeroflex products are based on a very scalable architecture, PXI in many cases. For example, the TM500 can emulate up to 32 UEs in a single box. When combined in a racked system, such as the E500 Capacity Test System, a small rack can emulate up to 3000 UEs, and scales upward from that with rack size. Aeroflex was demonstrating the real time handovers between TD-LTE and FD-LTE. To do this, they configured an E500 system as TDD and FDD UEs, alongside two PXI systems. One PXI system emulated an FDD base station, while the other emulated a TDD base station. They were able to demonstrate and measure the handovers between the two standards. The TDD standard uses time division duplexing and is optimized for asymmetric services such as data downloading, while FDD uses frequency division duplexing optimized for symmetric services such as voice. (See CMRI partners with Aeroflex for TD-LTE network test)
Clearly, nobody purchases test equipment to communicate with each other, as shown in the Aeroflex booth. One side would be the device under test, whether the handset or the base station. However, Aeroflex was able to demonstrate the test and analysis tools they offered for both cases by combining the demos. Aeroflex also showed PXI solutions they offered for manufacturing test along with the S-series bench products that they openly declare are PXI inside. Helen Duncan, who manages PR for Aeroflex at MWC, says their PXI leverage strategy “puts the flex in Aeroflex”. Very clever!
By the end of the day, I could feel the jet lag setting in. I’m always excited to meet each vendor at the events, but six interviews are a lot to absorb. Walking back to the exits from the second level walkway I looked down on the crowds at the Samsung booth. Unbelievably dense, there must have been hundreds of visitors at any given moment. The aisles appeared gridlocked as attendees strained to see the latest tablets and handsets. While Samsung and others grab the headlines at MWC, none of that could exist without the test engineers that qualify the products and the test vendors that create the sophisticated equipment to test them.
Next week I’ll write a follow up article of a second day of interviews with Anite, Celcite, EXFO, Ixia, Spirent, and the Small Cell Forum. Stay tuned! In the mean time, I’m going out for some tapas and Rioja.