Synchronization is one of the most critical functions of a communication system. Timing and synchronization standards for mobile networks prevent messages from interfering with one another and enable smooth cell-to-cell transfers. The increased stringency of timing and synchronization requirements for 5G is being driven by exponentially faster speeds, lower latency, and increased densification.
To use available spectrum as efficiently as possible, 5G technology introduces a time division duplex (TDD) environment. In the context of 5G, especially for TDD – where both uplink and downlink transmission is on the same frequency – the possibility of interference is much more significant. As a result, we see more exacting requirements for timing and synchronization for both TDD LTE and 5G-NR. Operators need large amounts of spectrum to deliver on the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use-case of 5G that amounts much greater than the 5 to 20 MHz that is generally available for LTE networks. Further, most of the available wideband 5G spectrum is either in the C-Band or mmWave, which only supports TDD. This means that TDD is a key factor in enabling eMBB services.
Significance of synchronization
It is important to discuss the relevance of synchronization in a communication network – especially a radio communication network. If the radio clock loses synchronization accuracy, or the radios are not synchronized in a TDD channel, TDD framing will drift outside the guard period and interfere with adjacent cell sites. The less accurate the clock source, the higher the probability for time shifts, which ultimately bring performance and interference challenges.
Intricacies in synchronization
Because a lack of synchronization in uplink (UL)/downlink (DL) frames further intensifies interference problems, industry standards introduce stringent restrictions on LTE and 5G new radio (NR) TDD transmission. While the absolute time synchronization margin in a frequency division duplex (FDD) LTE environment is in the magnitude of 10 µs, in a TDD radio environment it is restricted to just 1.5 µs.
In addition to the absolute time error margin, another consideration is management of over-the-air synchronization requirements for advanced radio features. These include MIMO, eCIC, COMP, and location-based services. In 5G, we are moving away from a synchronized fronthaul CPRI to a packet-based fronthaul. While this approach offers a number of advantages, packet-based fronthaul introduces complexities for synchronization. Service providers need different approaches depending on the topology and configuration of their networks. In most cases, we expect to see precision timing protocol (PTP) for distributing time of day (ToD), and synchronized Ethernet (SyncE) for distributing frequency. This means that radio units (RUs) will be synchronized over Ethernet.
Telecom service providers can implement various methods to meet these stringent phase and time synchronization requirements. The intent is to ensure synchronization of all nodes to the primary reference time clock (PRTC) source. However, the location of the source may vary depending on the network topology, cost, and application. By using a grand master clock synced to a satellite source and a combination of boundary clock and slave clocks, network nodes can be aligned to a common time and phase. For networks that cannot adhere to full timing support, such as networks that are not PTP aware, there are other options. For example, network operators can implement assisted partial timing support with appropriate consideration for the network topology and cost.
It is important to consider the use-cases for frame and slot synchronization. 5G 3GPP standards defined 56 slot formats, each of which is a predefined pattern of downlink/flexible/uplink symbols during one slot. These formats allow flexibility in terms of the application supported on a 5G node B (gNB). Yet, this also creates a challenge if two networks offering different types of service are located next to each other. Interference can result even if they are synchronized in time, but their slot formats are not synchronized. Essentially, when operating a 5G or 4G LTE network in a TDD environment, we not only need frequency and phase synchronization, but also frame and slot synchronization. This avoids inter-network interference.
Timing and synchronization – Essential for 5G-NR TDD network success
Synchronization technology is a fundamental building block for all wireless communication networks. Both 3G and 4G cellular technology required frequency synchronization, primarily to prevent interference when cells overlap. But, with the introduction of 5G technology, we have reached a new level in terms of TDD phase and frame synchronization. Validation testing is essential to meet stricter synchronization requirements, ensure conformance to industry standards, and affirm quality of service.