National Instruments provides technology starting blocks in race to 5G

A lot has been made of the industry's focus on 5G, a technology that has yet to be formally defined. But National Instruments is being, well, instrumental in forming--and proving--the types of technologies that eventually will get written in the standard.

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"We're right at the forefront," Eric Starkloff, executive vice president of global sales and marketing at National Instruments, told FierceWirelessTech. "This is an interesting time because it's really exploding. I see the research efforts really ramping up."

Based in Austin, Texas, National Instruments provides a hardware and software platform for vendors like Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK) to build prototypes and conduct tests in field trials as they work toward developing 5G standards. Nokia probably shaved about a year off its 5G R&D process by using National Instruments' solution designed into a 5G prototype base station, the vendor noted.

Universities doing R&D represent another big customer. For example, in their groundbreaking measurements that were published in the Microwave Journal last year, NYU Wireless Director Ted Rappaport and his students used National Instruments' technology in a tool designed to measure millimeter wave (mmW) channels. Their measurements, as well as mathematical channel models, are helping engineers design future mmW wireless communications systems and assist in the standardization process.

For the foreseeable future, the big infrastructure companies like Nokia are putting fairly large teams of people into 5G to prototype solutions and prove out different concepts to ultimately be integrated into the standard. Over the next couple of years, "it's really people jockeying for position in some regards but also just trying to prove out different technology vectors to see which ones will actually land in the standard," Starkloff said.

One of the sometimes-understated parts of 5G involves machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. "Those have some different requirements for the wireless networks," he said, noting the real-time requirements for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, for example, where it doesn't do much good to have a collision avoidance system that's a second too late. That's the kind of thing showing up in 5G that didn't surface in earlier technology iterations. 

But isn't it difficult to plan for a prototype for 5G when you don't know what spectrum is going to be used?

"A lot of things are unknown about 5G, but certainly the spectrum allocation is unknown" and people are trying a lot of things at traditional frequency ranges, in addition to mmW and very high frequencies, he said.

National Instruments' engineers create a set of interoperable components for prototyping in different frequency ranges and with modularity, "so you can have a processing engine and a baseband engine, RF front end and the software that ties all that together," he said. "We don't view it really as our position to pick which frequency spectrum is going to win out."

Up until about April of last year, when NYU Wireless and Nokia held their first 5G summit in Brooklyn, N.Y., many people in the industry did not think that using millimeter wave technology for 5G was going to work out from a technology point of view, citing challenges in propagation in frequencies that high. But once the technology started to be demonstrated, with Nokia Networks in particular showing a working prototype that had the ability to overcome some of the key technology barriers, people started to see it as a viable option and more research dollars started going into it.

The next Brooklyn 5G Summit will be April 8-19, 2015, and organizers say it will build on what was achieved last year and focus on spectrum assets above 6 GHz and progress in channel modeling at these higher frequencies. Massive MIMO and beamforming solutions for 5G systems will be focus topics.

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