AT&T debuts 5G channel sounder ‘Porcupine’ with NI

The “Porcupine” is out, and it’s making its debut in all its shiny grandeur. Nicknamed “Porcupine” within AT&T, a new millimeter-wave channel sounder was introduced this week as a first-of-its-kind device.

Looking a bit like something that might be walking and talking in a Star Wars movie, the sounder was developed with the help of National Instruments (NI) to capture how wireless signals are affected in a given environment. It can be used to measure how signals reflect off of, or are blocked by, objects like trees, buildings, cars or people.

It’s not the first channel sounder that NI has been involved in producing. For example, Professor Ted Rappaport’s system at NYU Wireless uses NI’s LabVIEW system design software, PXI and some of NI’s RF modules, according to an NI spokesperson. The NYU Wireless channel sounder has evolved to work across multiple frequency bands and RF bandwidths.

But AT&T's channel sounder stands out for several reasons. It provides real-time channel parameter measurement and monitoring capability. It allows angle-of-arrival measurements that typically would take 15 minutes or more to be completed (using pan-tilt units), but it can perform them within 150 milliseconds and display the results in real time.

Whereas other channel-sounding approaches capture raw data and post process to characterize the channel while only giving one measurement every 15 minutes, the “Porcupine” can provide about 6,000 measurements in that time. The companies say that’s like capturing 15 minutes of action with a video instead of a still photo. A video tells the whole story, while a photo just shows a moment.

It can also be used for measuring millimeter-wave frequencies during drive testing, which has implications for 5G use cases such as assisted driving, self-driving cars and more.

“Utilizing mmWave spectrum for mobile 5G presents many challenges which we believe can be solved,” said Marachel Knight, senior vice president of wireless network architecture and design at AT&T, in a press release. “We identified early on that designing and real-time monitoring of mmWave spectrum needs to be much more precise than today’s cellular systems. With the help of NI’s flexible hardware and software platform, AT&T developed a new type of channel sounder, and we’re using it to develop highly advanced models that will work for our network.”

The new channel sounder with AT&T is among the inventions that will be demonstrated at the Brooklyn 5G Summit next week. The event is co-hosted by Nokia and NYU Wireless. NYU Wireless will also demonstrate its channel simulator, with more than 7,000 downloads to date, real-time array channel emulator and an open source end-to-end network simulation platform, as well as phased-array antenna systems and VR prototyping systems.

NYU Wireless and NI announced earlier this week that NI made a sizable—nearly $1 million—donation to the university research team to further mmWave communications, channel measurement and channel emulation research for 5G and beyond. As part of the donation, NI will equip NYU Wireless labs with hardware and software from its flexible software defined radio (SDR) solutions, which researchers in both industry and academia are already using to help usher in 5G.

They say an important aspect of their partnership is the tight pairing of NI’s hardware and software, which reduces the time to ramp up an SDR system so the NYU Wireless group can go beyond simulations to build and evaluate concepts. Thus, NYU Wireless has identified system-level bottlenecks and solved problems that are critical in achieving high-throughput wireless systems.

NYU Wireless points out that only in the last few years has the mmWave radio spectrum—driven by research at NYU Wireless—become widely accepted as holding potential for the next generation of wireless networks.