What is OFDM: Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing

OFDM, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing uses multiple close spaced carriers each with low rate data for resilient communications.

OFDM Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing Includes:
OFDM basics     OFDM synchronisation     CP-OFDM     DFT-S-OFDM    

See also:     Multicarrier modulation basics     What is FBMC    

OFDM, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing is a form of signal waveform or modulation that provides some significant advantages for data links.

Accordingly, OFDM, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing is used for many of the latest wide bandwidth and high data rate wireless systems including Wi-Fi, cellular telecommunications and many more.

The fact that OFDM uses a large number of carriers, each carrying low bit rate data, means that it is very resilient to selective fading, interference, and multipath effects, as well providing a high degree of spectral efficiency.

Early systems using OFDM found the processing required for the signal format was relatively high, but with advances in technology, OFDM presents few problems in terms of the processing required.

Development of OFDM

The use of OFDM and multicarrier modulation in general has come to the fore in recent years as it provides an ideal platform for wireless data communications transmissions.

However the concept of OFDM technology was first investigated in the 1960s and 1970s during research into methods for reducing interference between closely spaced channels. IN addition to this other requirements needed to achieve error free data transmission in the presence of interference and selective propagation conditions.

Initially the use of OFDM required large levels of processing and accordingly it was not viable for general use.

Some of the first systems to adopt OFDM were digital broadcasting - here OFDM was able to provide a highly reliable form of data transport over a variety of signal path conditions.

One example was DAB digital radio that was introduced in Europe and other countries. It was Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK that launched the first service on 1st June 1995. OFDM was also used for digital television.

Later processing power increased as a result of rising integration levels enabling OFDM to be considered for the 4G mobile communications systems which started to be deployed from around 2009. Also OFDM was adopted for Wi-Fi and a variety of other wireless data systems.

What is OFDM?

OFDM is a form of multicarrier modulation. 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-slection if signals on different chanels
Traditional-slection if signals on different chanels

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.

Basic concept of OFDM, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, showing how the sidebands from adjacent carriers cancel at the pooint of the main carriers
Basic concept of OFDM, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing

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 traditional format for sending data over a radio channel is to send it serially, one bit after another. This relies on a single channel and any interference on that single frequency can disrupt the whole transmission.

OFDM adopts a different approach. The data is transmitted in parallel across the various carriers within the overall OFDM signal. Being split into a number of parallel "substreams" the overall data rate is that of the original stream, but that of each of the substreams is much lower, and the symbols are spaced further apart in time.

This reduces interference among symbols and makes it easier to receive each symbol accurately while maintaining the same throughput.

The lower data rate in each stream means that the interference from reflections is much less critical. This is achieved by adding a guard band time or guard interval into the system.

The guard time 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. This can be achieved far more effectively within a low data rate substream.

OFDM guard interval used to accommodate signals arriving at different times as a result of reflections giving rise to different path lengths
Guard interval on OFDM signals

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.

Key features of OFDM

The OFDM scheme differs from traditional FDM in the following interrelated ways:

  • Multiple carriers (called subcarriers) carry the information stream
  • The subcarriers are orthogonal to each other.
  • A guard interval is added to each symbol to minimize the channel delay spread and intersymbol interference.

OFDM advantages & disadvantages

OFDM advantages

OFDM has been used in many high data rate wireless systems because of the many advantages it provides.

  • Immunity to selective fading:   One of the main advantages of OFDM is that is more resistant to frequency selective fading than single carrier systems because it divides the overall channel into multiple narrowband signals that are affected individually as flat fading sub-channels.
  • Resilience to interference:   Interference appearing on a channel may be bandwidth limited and in this way will not affect all the sub-channels. This means that not all the data is lost.
  • Spectrum efficiency:   Using close-spaced overlapping sub-carriers, a significant OFDM advantage is that it makes efficient use of the available spectrum.
  • Resilient to ISI:   Another advantage of OFDM is that it is very resilient to inter-symbol and inter-frame interference. This results from the low data rate on each of the sub-channels.
  • Resilient to narrow-band effects:   Using adequate channel coding and interleaving it is possible to recover symbols lost due to the frequency selectivity of the channel and narrow band interference. Not all the data is lost.
  • Simpler channel equalisation:   One of the issues with CDMA systems was the complexity of the channel equalisation which had to be applied across the whole channel. An advantage of OFDM is that using multiple sub-channels, the channel equalization becomes much simpler.

OFDM disadvantages

Whilst OFDM has been widely used, there are still a few disadvantages to its use which need to be addressed when considering its use.

  • High peak to average power ratio:   An OFDM signal has a noise like amplitude variation and has a relatively high large dynamic range, or peak to average power ratio. This impacts the RF amplifier efficiency as the amplifiers need to be linear and accommodate the large amplitude variations and these factors mean the amplifier cannot operate with a high efficiency level.
  • Sensitive to carrier offset and drift:   Another disadvantage of OFDM is that is sensitive to carrier frequency offset and drift. Single carrier systems are less sensitive.

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 multiplexing. 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, orthogonal frequency division multiplexing has 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 have become a major factor in today's communications scene.

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