Colin Newman, Director of Antenna Business Development at Quectel looks at the expertise needed to optimize 5G antenna selection.
5G technology is bringing a plethora of benefits, including improved throughput, decreased latency and increased network capacity, which will in turn enable more devices to access the internet. This will allow faster downloads of movies, other videos, and data of all kinds and provide an array of business and consumer benefits.
However, for these benefits to be realized, the underlying telecom networks and the wireless products that use them need to be optimized. To assure optimum performance of wireless devices, the entire RF front end design layout needs to be configured to deliver the best 5G performance.
This means using the best antenna types and design options. Off the shelf antennas can often be used for many types of these designs, and there are various antenna types to consider. Among antennas in common use today are laser direct structuring (LDS) and liquid crystal polymer (LCP) antennas, tuneable antennas and devices that are designed to accommodate multiple antennas, such as for MIMO or beamforming solutions.
Different antennas offer different attributes. Any antenna that is used needs to be paired with the right module for the antenna type to ensure good performance and smooth integration. Multiple antenna arrangements enable greater throughput across different protocols. The typical 5G antenna setup is complex, so wireless device designers should work with module and antenna suppliers. These are knowledgeable across all antenna types to ensure that they interact as expected and are backed by engineering support services that can optimize the 5G performance for their customers.
Expert vendors will also help with various antenna array design challenges and the complexities that can arise from newer technologies such as 5G mmWave. Antenna position is critical to optimize performance and is a key consideration that should be addressed at the very early stage of the architecture. Addressing it after the design gets underway can lead to additional costs and delays, hurting revenues and time to market.
Similarly, several other design elements should be addressed when designing devices with antennas for the best 5G performance. Among them are: Whether to use metal or plastic enclosures; the proximity of batteries, LCDs, connectors, shield cans and any other components containing metal; the size, position and orientation of the printed circuit board, any noisy components that can cause interference, other antennas sharing a similar frequency and the location of the device, to name a few.
Antennas can be broadly categorized into four major types:
- External antenna with cable: This type of antenna offers excellent performance with the lowest risk. This type of antenna implementation is well known and tested. The antenna is situated far away from other system electronics, minimizing the risk of any proximity issues.
- Terminal antenna: Such an antenna also offers known, tested performance and low risk. A terminal antenna is usually the best choice for a low signal area, such as a basement.
- Embedded Flex/PCB, SMD antenna: This type of antenna is more complex to configure for optimal performance and has higher risk but offers the benefit of low costs. With its surface mount design (SMD), this type of antenna is ideal for high-volume deployments.
- Custom antenna: A custom antenna addresses mechanical constraints and performance and can be molded to fit the product, enabling it to be placed where a standard antenna is not an option.
Customized antenna technologies include LDS, which is the prevailing antenna manufacturing technology on the market and offers high design flexibility with surface mount technology (SMT) component integration. Advantages here include the ability to etch an antenna pattern on either a plastic carrier or the underside of the product housing. However, this can be more expensive than the flexible printed circuit (FPC) or sheet metal technology, and double curved surface designs are impossible. FPC is an alternative option, sometimes using spring contacts to ease assembly. However, FPC can offer limited layout complexity, with a cost between sheet metal and LDS.
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Sheet metal is the most flexible 3D antenna manufacturing technology with antenna volume and RF performance improvements. The technology offers lower antenna cost, but the tooling charge is greater than FPC or LDS.
With so many different types of antennas, components and configuration considerations, the technology is not something to buy, plug in, turn on, and it’s ready to use. To operate at all, and certainly to operate to its maximum capacity and provide optimal performance, antenna technologies should be selected carefully for their intended uses and locations.