Orthogonal frequency division multiplexing is commonly implemented in many emerging communications protocols because it provides several advantages over the traditional FDM approach to communications channels. More specifically, OFDM systems allow for greater spectral efficiency reduced intersymbol interference (ISI), and resilience to multi-path distortion.
In a traditional FDM system, each channel is spaced by about 25% of the channel width. This is done to ensure that adjacent channels do not interfere. This is illustrated in the diagram below, which shows the guard bands between individual channels.
Because of the requirement for guard bands, it is required to the symbol rate to allow for guard bands to exist. In general, the allowed channel bandwidth (Bw) is 2/Rs. As a result of this, the channels are able to be separated adequately.
In an OFDM system, on the other hand, the channels actually overlap. As a result, it is possible to maximize the symbol rate, and thus the throughput, for a given bandwidth. In the image below, we illustrate overlapping sub-carriers in an OFDM system. In this scenario, the channel bandwidth (Bw) approaches 1 / Rs. Thus, as the number of sub-carriers approaches infinity, OFDM systems allow for nearly double the spectral efficiency.
Note that with an OFDM system, it is still required to have a guard band between each individual channel. However, the effective symbol rate for the combined sub-carriers is greater than if a single carrier were used instead.
Note that the effect of using overlapping orthogonal sub-carriers also requires the use of a cyclic prefix to prevent intersymbol interference (ISI). Thus, some of the advantages gained through overlapping sub-carriers are compromised. However, the spectral efficiency advantage is great enough such that greater throughput is available in an OFDM system.
Reduced Inter Symbol Interference (ISI)
In mono-carrier systems, intersymbol interference is often caused through the multi-path characteristics of a wireless communications channel. Note that when transmitting an electromagnetic wave over a long distance, the signal passes through a variety of physical mediums. As a result, the actual received signal contains the direct path signal overlaid with signal reflections of smaller amplitudes. The diagram below illustrates how, at high symbol rates, reflected signals can interfere with subsequent symbols.
In wireless systems, this creates difficulty because the received signal can be slightly distorted. In this scenario, the direct path signal arrives as expected, but slightly attenuated reflections arrive later in time. These reflections create a challenge because they interfere with subsequent symbols transmitted along the direct path. These signal reflections are typically mitigated through a pulse-shaping filter, which attenuates both the starting and ending sections of the symbol period. However, as the figure above illustrates, this problem becomes much more significant at high symbol rates. Because the reflections make up a significant percentage of the symbol period, ISI will also be substantial.
OFDM systems mitigate this problem by utilizing a comparatively long symbol period. In addition, they do this without sacrificing throughput by utilizing multiple sub-carriers per channel. Below, we illustrate the time domain of OFDM symbols. Note that in an OFDM system, the symbol rate can be reduced while still achieving similar or even higher throughput.
Note from the illustration above that the time required for the reflections to fully attenuate is the same as before. However, by utilizing a smaller symbol rate, the signal reflections make up only a small percentage of the total symbol period. Thus, it is possible to simply add a guard interval to remove interference from reflections without significantly decreasing system throughput.