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OFDM Basics Tutorial

OFDM - Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex, the modulation concept being used for many wireless and radio communications radio applications from DAB, DVB, Wi-Fi and Mobile Video.

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
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
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 inter-modulation 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
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:

  • 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.

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Key Words : OFDM, Wi-Fi, Modulation, DAB, DVB,

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