5G Accuracy Requires Accurate Testing

NI Logo



A man connects to a 5G network from his mobile device
The promise of 5G isn’t just in its speed – it’s in safety.

Have you ever wondered how your cell phone knows where you are? Maybe you thought about it the last time you had to find a misplaced phone. Or maybe it crossed your mind when you were using your device to avoid a traffic jam. Most days, we take the accuracy of our cell phone’s location for granted.

But what happens when you need to use your phone to make an emergency call? Suddenly the ability to find your phone’s location isn’t just a cool feature — it’s critical to your safety or the welfare of others. Thanks to advancements in 5G and cell phone technology, firefighters, ambulance drivers and other first responders can pinpoint your location within two to four centimeters, something that was unheard of 20 years ago. 

That level of accuracy requires testing, which is something Spirent knows a lot about. Nine out of ten of the world’s top Communications Service Providers (CSPs) use Spirent, a global electronics communications company headquartered in the United Kingdom. 

Recently, Clarke Ryan, senior director of product development for Spirent, sat down with NI and shared five ways his company Engineers Ambitiously to help keep you and your loved ones safe.

Tolerate partial successes. Often, a small win is the steppingstone to the next big breakthrough.
A wireless service technician configures and tests an antenna tower high above a tree-lined road 

Accurately locating 5G enabled devices requires properly designed towers.

#1 Accelerating the Promise of 5G 

The accuracy of your location depends on cell towers. The companies that produce these towers must ensure they’re well designed and work for the people making cellular and other smart 5G devices. Spirent helps ensure the 5G network is properly designed, and it accelerates 5G technology. It’s this technology that enables first responders to locate you quickly.  

Ryan, an engineer and self-professed nerd, is motivated by solving complex technical problems and likes working with others to achieve a common goal. With a fondness for the occasional metaphor, he likens Spirent’s philosophy to building the right toolbelt for their customers. He and his colleagues don’t try to build every tool in the belt. Instead, they acquire and partner with the right companies to complete it.  

Ryan believes 5G will transform the speed and accuracy with which both humans and machines interact. He also predicts that Spirent’s future will involve more than just telecommunications. 

“Where 5G development is well underway, there’s a rush globally to move past non-standalone (NSA) to standalone (SA) 5G rollouts to capture revenues in industries like manufacturing, automotive, mobile gaming and beyond,” he said.

Researchers wearing blue protective garments working in a laboratory. 

Research is underway around the world to expand 5G to manufacturing, automotive, and beyond.

#2 A Neutral Party to Work Across Competitors

Before the 5G ecosystem can evolve, companies must test and validate products and services for standards compliance, interoperability and operational performance. Working with companies that paved the way in telecommunications, Ryan witnessed first-hand the engineering innovations in electronic communications, from the advent of the first mobile phone to the promise of 5G.  

“The largest competitors in the cell phone market are strangely dependent on one other,” he said. “They need standards and a scorecard that allows interoperability so that a cell phone from one company can ‘talk’ with a cell phone from another company.” 

As Ryan puts it, Spirent acts as a neutral party working across these competitors; testing must span companies, and standards should be in place to allow for that. 

A man and a woman look at a monitor together. 

Interoperability standards must allow phones to “talk” between companies as easily as people talk face-to-face.

#3 Overcoming Unexpected Challenges 

Earlier this year, an unexpected delay by the FCC forced NI and Spirent customers to pivot quickly. To understand this challenge, it helps to understand aspects of the market, not well known by people outside of the industry.  

To start deployment, first the FCC needs to auction the spectrum rights. On the global stage, the major deployments for 5G are aimed at what is called the mid-band spectrum. In the US, this includes the Citizen’s Band Radio Service (CBRS). The FCC has been looking at allowing this band to be used for 5G for several years, but concerns of interfering with existing users has slowed down that action. 

Late last year, the continued delays in the FCC auction triggered US carriers to generate active plans to reuse radio spectrum they had been using for 4G. To support this, Spirent needed to shift to a very different radio structure format and get it certified by the start of April 2020 for a major US carrier.  

Spirent brought the challenge to meet the April validation target date to the NI team. Hong Bounpaseuth, senior staff engineer, stepped in from Spirent as a key lead in this effort. Hong lives in Dallas, a “Texas stone’s throw away” from the labs at NI’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. Hong made the 3-hour drive several times through the start of the year to sit side-by-side with the NI team. As Covid-19 lockdowns took effect in the spring, Hong built up two systems in his home and continued working with the NI team as they collectively solved one problem after another in the face of the extremely challenging logistical issues. 

NI recognized that significant design and test challenges require powerful tools and was committed to connecting designers and test engineers to ensure the two companies developed an offering to support their customers.  

Front view of Spirent 8100 5G Mobile Device Test System 

Spirent's 8100 5G Mobile Device Test System incorporates NI's leading-edge SDR platform

#4 Tolerate Partial Successes Along the Way 

Innovations require testing to enter the market reliably and sustainably. Ryan attributes part of Spirent’s success to being open to tolerating partial successes: “Often, a small win is the steppingstone to the next big breakthrough.”

Clarke Ryan, Senior Director of Product Development, Spirent 

– Clarke Ryan, Senior Director of Product Development, Spirent

Ryan also compares today’s telephone network to a pyramid that’s about two miles high, a sharp departure from what it was like when he began his career in 1977. 

“There are about 10 levels of abstraction between being ‘down in the dirt’ in electronics and being ‘up in the cloud.’ No one on Earth can cognitively understand all those levels stacked on top of each other. You need a framework, so you can regression test, make a small change, and then regression test again. Small changes cause small problems that you can address. If you put all those changes in at once, you’ll never understand what the problem was. You need to ensure the design is working properly and iterate quickly. Testing breaks down that complexity.”

A woman uses her cell phone to locate her position while hiking in the mountains 

Advances in 5G will improve safety for travelers.

#5 Bigger, Bolder Advancements  

Spirent’s 5G device capabilities are built on NI’s software defined radio (SDR) platform. Ryan shared that integrating NI SDR helps Spirent adapt their systems quickly even as standards evolve.   

Ryan concluded by sharing the ways in which Spirent and others Engineer Ambitiously to improve the accuracy of location services, including adding elevation information. This exciting area of development has implications for you and your safety. 

“If someone’s stuck in a 30-story building engulfed in flames, a firefighter will want to know what floor they’re on. We also want to know what floor a firefighter is on if he or she stops responding. We’re not there yet, but this is where we’re headed. And that’s just one example of our intent to Engineer Ambitiously for the welfare of all.”