Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM): FAQ Tutorial

Apr 22, 2009 11:26 AM, By Louis E. Frenzel Q: What is OFDM?

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A: OFDM is a broadband multicarrier modulation method that offers superior performance and benefits over older, more traditional single-carrier modulation methods because it is a better fit with today¶s high-speed data requirements and operation in the UHF and microwave spectrum. Q: Is OFDM a new technique? A: No. Conceptually, it has been known since at least the 1960s and 1970s. Originally known as multicarrier modulation, as opposed to the traditional single-carrier modulation, OFDM was extremely difficult to implement with the electronic hardware of the time. So, it remained a research curiosity until semiconductor and computer technology made it a practical method. Q: Why has there been all the interest in OFDM in the past few years? A: OFDM has been adopted as the modulation method of choice for practically all the new wireless technologies being used and developed today. It is perhaps the most spectrally efficient method discovered so far, and it mitigates the severe problem of multipath propagation that causes massive data errors and loss of signal in the microwave and UHF spectrum. Q: What are some of the wireless technologies that use OFDM? A: The list is long and impressive. First, it is used for digital radio broadcasting² specifically Europe¶s DAB and Digital Radio Mondial. It is used in the U.S.¶s HD Radio. It is used in TV broadcasting like Europe¶s DVB-T and DVB-H. You will also find it in wireless local-area networks (LANs) like Wi-Fi. The IEEE 802.11a/g/n standards are

based on OFDM. The wideband wireless metro-area network (MAN) technology WiMAX uses OFDM. And, the almost completed 4G cellular technology standard LongTerm Evolution (LTE) uses OFDM. The high-speed short-range technology known as Ultra-Wideband (UWB) uses an OFDM standard set by the WiMedia Alliance. OFDM is also used in wired communications like power-line networking technology. One of the first successful and most widespread uses of OFDM was in data modems connected to telephone lines. ADSL and VDSL used for Internet access use a form of OFDM known as discrete multi-tone (DMT). And, there are other less well known examples in the military and satellite worlds. Q: How does OFDM work? A: OFDM is based on the concept of frequency-division multiplexing (FDD), the method of transmitting multiple data streams over a common broadband medium. That medium could be radio spectrum, coax cable, twisted pair, or fiber-optic cable. Each data stream is modulated onto multiple adjacent carriers within the bandwidth of the medium, and all are transmitted simultaneously. A good example of such a system is cable TV, which transmits many parallel channels of video and audio over a single fiber-optic cable and coax cable. Q: Is that how OFDM works today? A: Sort of. The FDD technique is typically wasteful of bandwidth or spectrum because to keep the parallel modulated carriers from interfering with one another, you have to space them with some guard bands or extra space between them. Even then, very selective filters at the receiving end have to be able to separate the signals from one another. What researchers discovered is that with digital transmissions, the carriers could be more closely spaced to one another and still separate. That meant less spectrum and bandwidth waste. Q: Given the multiple parallel channels, what is the actual modulation process? A: The serial digital data stream to be transmitted is split into multiple slower data streams, and each is modulated onto a separate carrier in the allotted spectrum. These carriers are called subcarriers or tones. The modulation can be any form of modulation used with digital data, but the most common are binary phase-shift keying (BPSK), quadrature phase-shift keying (QPSK), and quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). The outputs of all the modulators are linearly summed, and the result is the signal to be transmitted. It could be upconverted and amplified if needed. Q: That sounds like a straightforward approach. Is OFDM really implemented this way? A: Not really. OFDM works best, as explained later, if hundreds or even thousands of parallel subcarriers are used. To implement that with hardware is a challenge even with modern semiconductor technology. It¶s just not done. Instead, the whole process can be

accomplished in computer hardware by using the fast Fourier transform (FFT) or, more specifically for the transmitter, the inverse FFT (IFFT). Q: I don¶t have time for a math lesson, so give me a quick overview of the FFT. A: The FFT is a variation of the discrete Fourier transform (DFT). Fourier, as you may remember from your college math days, was the Frenchman who discovered that any complex signal could be represented by a series of harmonically related sine waves all added together. He also developed the math to prove it. The math is difficult, and even early computers couldn¶t perform it quickly. Cooley/Tukey developed the fast Fourier transform in the 1960s as a way to greatly speed up the math to make Fourier analysis more practical. In general, you can take any analog signal, digitize it in an analog-todigital converter (ADC), and then take the resulting samples and put them through the FFT process. The result is essentially a digital version of a spectrum analysis of the signal. The FFT sorts all the signal components out into the individual sine-wave elements of specific frequencies and amplitudes²a mathematical spectrum analyzer of a sort. That makes the FFT a good way to separate out all the carriers of an OFDM signal. Q: Then how does the IFFT work? A: The IFFT just reverses the FFT process. All the individual carriers with modulation are in digital form and then subjected to an IFFT mathematical process, creating a single composite signal that can be transmitted. The FFT at the receiver sorts all the signals to recreate the original data stream. Q: Just how does the FFT process keep the individual modulated carriers from interfering with one another? A: This is where the term ³orthogonal´ comes in. Orthogonal really means at a right angle to. The signals are created so they are orthogonal to one another, thereby producing little or no interference to one another despite the close spacing. In more practical terms, it means that if you space the subcarriers from one another by any amount equal to the reciprocal of the symbol period of the data signals, the resulting sinc (sin x/x) frequency response curve of the signals is such that the first nulls occur at the subcarrier frequencies on the adjacent channels. Orthogonal subcarriers all have an integer number of cycles within the symbol period. With this arrangement, the modulation on one channel won¶t produce intersymbol interference (ISI) in the adjacent channels. Q: How is OFDM implemented in the real world? A: OFDM is accomplished with digital signal processing (DSP). You can program the IFFT and FFT math functions on any fast PC, but it is usually done with a DSP IC or an appropriately programmed FPGA or some hardwired digital logic. With today¶s superfast chips, even complex math routines like FFT are relatively easy to implement. In brief, you can put it all on a single chip.

Q: What are the benefits of using OFDM? A: The first reason is spectral efficiency, also called bandwidth efficiency. What that term really means is that you can transmit more data faster in a given bandwidth in the presence of noise. The measure of spectral efficiency is bits per second per Hertz, or bps/Hz. For a given chunk of spectrum space, different modulation methods will give you widely varying maximum data rates for a given bit error rate (BER) and noise level. Simple digital modulation methods like amplitude shift keying (ASK) and frequency shift keying (FSK) are only fair but simple. BPSK and QPSK are much better. QAM is very good but more subject to noise and low signal levels. Code division multiple access (CDMA) methods are even better. But none is better than OFDM when it comes to getting the maximum data capacity out of a given channel. It comes close to the so called Shannon limit that defines channel capacity C in bits per second (bps) as C = B x log2(1 + S/N)Here, B is the bandwidth of the channel in hertz, and S/N is the power signal-to-noise ratio. With spectrum scarce or just plain expensive, spectral efficiency has become the holy grail in wireless. Q: What else makes OFDM so good? A: OFDM is highly resistant to the multipath problem in high-frequency wireless. Very short-wavelength signals normally travel in a straight line (line of sight, or LOS) from the transmit antenna to the receive antenna. Yet trees, buildings, cars, planes, hills, water towers, and even people will reflect some of the radiated signal. These reflections are copies of the original signal that also go to the receive antenna. If the time delays of the reflections are in the same range as the bit or symbol periods of the data signal, then the reflected signals will add to the direct signal and create cancellations or other anomalies. The result is what we usually call Raleigh fading. Q: How does OFDM deal with this? A: The high-speed serial data to be transmitted is divided up into many much lowerspeed serial data signals. Then OFDM sends these lower-data-rate signals over multiple channels. This makes the bit or symbol periods longer, so multipath time delays have less of an effect. The more subcarriers used over a wider bandwidth, the more resistant the overall signal is to the multipath phenomenon. This means you can use the higher frequencies with fewer multipath effects to worry about. But the really good news is that you can use them in mobile situations where either the transmitter or receiver or both are moving and undergoing changing environmental conditions with good signal reliability. Q: What are the downsides to OFDM? A: Like anything else, OFDM is not perfect. It is very complex, making it more expensive to implement. However, modern semiconductor technology makes it pretty easy. OFDM is also sensitive to carrier frequency variations. To overcome this problem, OFDM systems transmit pilot carriers along with the subcarriers for synchronization at

the receiver. Another disadvantage is that an OFDM signal has a high peak to average power ratio. As a result, the complex OFDM signal requires linear amplification. That means greater inefficiency in the RF power amplifiers and more power consumption. Q: What is OFMDA? A: The A stands for access. It means that OFDM is not only a great modulation method, it also can provide multiple access to a common bandwidth or channel to multiple users. You are probably familiar with multiple access methods like frequency-division multiplexing (FDM) and time division multiplexing (TDM). CDMA, the widely used cellular technology, digitally codes each digital signal to be transmitted and then transmits them all in the same spectrum. Because of their random nature, they just appear as low-level noise to one another. The digital coding lets the receiver sort the individual signal out later. OFDMA permits multiple users to share a common bandwidth with essentially the same benefits. Q: How is OFDMA accomplished? A: The OFDM system assigns subgroups of subcarriers to each user. With thousands of subcarriers, each user would get a small percentage of the carriers. In a modern system like the 4G LTE cellular system, each user could be assigned from one to many subcarriers. In LTE, subcarrier spacing is 15 kHz. Using a 10-MHz band, the total possible number of subcarriers would be 666. In practice, a smaller number like 512 would be used. If each subscriber is given six subcarriers, you could put 85 users in the band. The number of subcarriers assigned will depend on the user¶s bandwidth and speed needs. Q: Is there anything better than OFDM? A: Not right now. What makes OFDM even better is MIMO, the multiple-input multipleoutput antenna technology. It is currently used in 802.11n Wi-Fi and the forthcoming LTE. Look for MIMO in another FAQ Tutorial This OFDM tutorial is split into several pages each of which addresses a different aspect of OFDM operation and technology: [1] OFDM basics tutorial [2] OFDM synchronization Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex or OFDM is a modulation format that is finding increasing levels of use in today's radio communications scene. OFDM has been adopted in the Wi-Fi arena where the 802.11a standard uses it to provide data rates up to 54 Mbps in the 5 GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) band. In addition to this the recently ratified 802.11g standard has it in the 2.4 GHz ISM band. In addition to this, it is being used for WiMAX and is also the format of choice for the next generation cellular radio communications systems including 3G LTE and UMB.

If this was not enough it is also being used for digital terrestrial television transmissions as well as DAB digital radio. A new form of broadcasting called Digital Radio Mondiale for the long medium and short wave bands is being launched and this has also adopted COFDM. Then for the future it is being proposed as the modulation technique for fourth generation cell phone systems that are in their early stages of development and OFDM is also being used for many of the proposed mobile phone video systems. OFDM, orthogonal frequency division multiplex is a rather different format for modulation to that used for more traditional forms of transmission. It utilises many carriers together to provide many advantages over simpler modulation formats.

OFDM concept
An OFDM signal consists of a number of closely spaced modulated carriers. When modulation of any form - voice, data, etc. is applied to a carrier, then sidebands spread out either side. It is necessary for a receiver to be able to receive the whole signal to be able to successfully demodulate the data. As a result when signals are transmitted close to one another they must be spaced so that the receiver can separate them using a filter and there must be a guard band between them. This is not the case with OFDM. Although the sidebands from each carrier overlap, they can still be received without the interference that might be expected because they are orthogonal to each another. This is achieved by having the carrier spacing equal to the reciprocal of the symbol period.

Traditional view of receiving signals carrying modulation To see how OFDM works, it is necessary to look at the receiver. This acts as a bank of demodulators, translating each carrier down to DC. The resulting signal is integrated over the symbol period to regenerate the data from that carrier. The same demodulator also demodulates the other carriers. As the carrier spacing equal to the reciprocal of the symbol period means that they will have a whole number of cycles in the symbol period and their contribution will sum to zero - in other words there is no interference contribution.

OFDM Spectrum One requirement of the OFDM transmitting and receiving systems is that they must be linear. Any non-linearity will cause interference between the carriers as a result of intermodulation distortion. This will introduce unwanted signals that would cause interference and impair the orthogonality of the transmission. In terms of the equipment to be used the high peak to average ratio of multi-carrier systems such as OFDM requires the RF final amplifier on the output of the transmitter to be able to handle the peaks whilst the average power is much lower and this leads to inefficiency. In some systems the peaks are limited. Although this introduces distortion that results in a higher level of data errors, the system can rely on the error correction to remove them.

Data on OFDM
The data to be transmitted on an OFDM signal is spread across the carriers of the signal, each carrier taking part of the payload. This reduces the data rate taken by each carrier. The lower data rate has the advantage that interference from reflections is much less critical. This is achieved by adding a guard band time or guard interval into the system. This ensures that the data is only sampled when the signal is stable and no new delayed signals arrive that would alter the timing and phase of the signal.

Guard Interval The distribution of the data across a large number of carriers in the OFDM signal has some further advantages. Nulls caused by multi-path effects or interference on a given

frequency only affect a small number of the carriers, the remaining ones being received correctly. By using error-coding techniques, which does mean adding further data to the transmitted signal, it enables many or all of the corrupted data to be reconstructed within the receiver. This can be done because the error correction code is transmitted in a different part of the signal.

OFDM variants
There are several other variants of OFDM for which the initials are seen in the technical literature. These follow the basic format for OFDM, but have additional attributes or variations:
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COFDM: Coded Orthogonal frequency division multiplex. A form of OFDM where error correction coding is incorporated into the signal. Flash OFDM: This is a variant of OFDM that was developed by Flarion and it is a fast hopped form of OFDM. It uses multiple tones and fast hopping to spread signals over a given spectrum band. OFDMA: Orthogonal frequency division multiple access. A scheme used to provide a multiple access capability for applications such as cellular telecommunications when using OFDM technologies. VOFDM: Vector OFDM. This form of OFDM uses the concept of MIMO technology. It is being developed by CISCO Systems. MIMO stands for Multiple Input Multiple output and it uses multiple antennas to transmit and receive the signals so that multi-path effects can be utilised to enhance the signal reception and improve the transmission speeds that can be supported. WOFDM: Wideband OFDM. The concept of this form of OFDM is that it uses a degree of spacing between the channels that is large enough that any frequency errors between transmitter and receiver do not affect the performance. It is particularly applicable to Wi-Fi systems.

Each of these forms of OFDM utilise the same basic concept of using close spaced orthogonal carriers each carrying low data rate signals. During the demodulation phase the data is then combined to provide the complete signal.

OFDM Summary
OFDM and COFDM have gained a significant presence in the wireless market place. The combination of high data capacity, high spectral efficiency, and its resilience to interference as a result of multi-path effects means that it is ideal for the high data applications that are becoming a common factor in today's communications scene

The need for OFDM synchronization
OFDM offers many advantages in terms of resilience to fading, reflections and the like. OFDM also offers a high level of spectrum efficiency. However to reap the rewards, it is necessary that the OFDM system operates correctly, and to achieve this, it is necessary for the OFDM synchronization to be effective. There are a number of areas in which the OFDM synchronisation is critical to the operation of the system:
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OFDM synchronization in terms of frequency offset: It is necessary that the frequencies are accurately tracked to ensure that orthogonality is maintained. OFDM synchronisation in terms of clock accuracy: It is necessary that the sampling occurs at the correct time interval to ensure that the samples are synchronized and data errors are minimised.

In order to ensure that the OFDM system works to its optimum, it is necessary to ensure that there are schemes in place to ensure the OFDM synchronization is within the required limits.

Frequency offset OFDM synchronization
It is particularly important that the demodulator in an OFDM receiver is able to synchronize accurately with the carriers within the OFDM signal. Offsets may arise for a number of reasons including any frequency errors between the transmitter and the receiver and also as a result of Doppler shifts if there is movement between the transmitter and receiver. If the frequency synchronisation is impaired, then the orthogonality of the carriers is reduced within the demodulation process and error rates increase. Accordingly it is essential to maintain orthogonality to reduce errors and maintain the performance of the link. First look at the way that sampling should occur. With the demodulator in synchronisation, all the contributions from the other carriers sum to zero as shown. On this way all the carriers are orthogonal and the error rate is at its minimum.

An OFDM signal where demodulation is in synchronisation If a situation is encountered where the OFDM synchronisation for the frequency aspects are poor, then the demodulator will centre its samples away from the peak of the signal, and also at a point where the contributions from the other signals do not sum to zero. This will lead to a degradation of the signal which could in turn lead to an increase in the number of bit errors.

An OFDM signal where demodulation has poor synchronisation

Clock offset OFDM synchronization
It is also necessary to maintain OFDM synchronization in terms of the clock. Gain if the clock synchronisation is not accurate, sampling will be offset and again orthogonality will be reduced, and data errors will increase. When looking at OFDM synchronization with regard to the clock offset, the carrier spacing used within the receiver for sampling the received signal will be based upon the internal clock rate. If this differs from that used within the transmitter, it will be found that even if the first carrier within the multiplex is correct, then there will be a growing discrepancy with each carrier away from the first one. Even small levels of discrepancy will cause the error rate to increase.

OFDM synchronization problem with clock offset problem Further pages from this tutorial

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