Have you wonder why the connectivity of your electronic product is flaky? Even though the product is designed with a known wireless vendor with latest standards. Is it really the wireless module vendor the culprit of the slow internet connection? The short answer is no. Different products with same wireless module part number can have very different wireless performance.
We are going to introduce the term radio frequency (RF) desensitization also known as RF desense in industry, and this will be the focus of this article
Note desensitization is not limited to wireless receivers. Other receivers such as light detector can also be desensitized due to light leakage or pollution.
The purpose of this article to demystify, root cause, and mitigate RF desense problems. After finishing this article, an intelligent designer shall able to be able to diagnose wireless problems, pin point the root cause, and apply appropriate desense mitigation changes.
Receiver sensitivity: it is the minimum detectable receiving signal power of an digital radio receiver in order to achieve the a specific bit error rate (BER) in accordance to the wireless radio communication standard such as WiFi or Bluetooth.
Theory of Operation: A desensitized wireless receiver means that its noise floor is increased due to electromiagnetic interference which directly results in reduction of the received signal to noise ratio, leading to degradation of the receiver performance in terms of throughput vs. range. In order to maintain the same receiver performance (i.e the same data rate at the same range) at presence of RF interference, a higher receiving signal power is needed at radio receiver. However, transmit power is fixed from the access point/wireless router, this means that to in order achieve the the minimum receiver power level/sensitivity required by the radio communication standard, the effective communication link range between access point/wireless router and radio receiver has to be reduced, resulting in reduction of wireless range coverage.
The cause of desensitization is due to electromagnetic interference. this type of interference can originate from an external source (e.g., nearby electronics such as TV) or more realistically a stronger self-generated interference within the electronic system of the product. Most often than not, it is the self-generated interference that causes poor wireless performance. A good analogy to desense in shooting your self in the foot!
Electromagnetic interference (EMI) always have a source and can be coupled in many ways to the wireless receivers. In an embedded system, a conducted coupling path can be a noise power supply for RF receiver IC and a radiated path can be an unshielded DDR memory banks that radiates electromagnetic energy into the air (during a read or write operation), and that interference power is picked up by the radio receiver antenna, which results in desensitization.
By looking at each coupling path and identifying the sources of EMI, one is able to provide mitigation early on to prevent poor wireless performance.
Sources that generated radiated interference are commonly referred as aggressors, which are just any active electronic elements within the electrical system that operate at high speed such as clock oscillator, switching mode power supply, digital communication interfaces, DDR memories, etc.
Root Cause Methods
One shall create a Desense Matrix containing following items to test the level of radio receiver desensitization.
Example of Desense Matrix
Identify all possible aggressors
identify all receiver operating bands and channels
Create an acceptance criteria
could be a minimum of data throughput in terms of bits per second.
Generally test condition is set at a very low sensitivity.
Could be a maximum sensitivity degradation increase in terms of relative increase in receiver power level.
Generally a 3dB desense level is used
Generally test condition is set at a very low sensitivity.
Note: A low receiver sensitivity test conditions allows for good detection of very low power noise/interference. Generally, low receiver sensitivity is also accompanied with low MCS index.
To understand the exact noise spectrum of a well know noise source such as a HDMI interface, one can do a PCB level simulation and analysis and generate a power spectral density (PSD) plot to evaluate how the signal transmission affects victim radio operating bands.
Move antenna away from high noise areas such as digital ICs, power electronics, high speed interfaces.
Use antenna that has good isolated ground.
Use dedicated antenna for each receiver band (e.g separated 2.4 GHz antenna for WiFi vs. Bluetooth)
provide low impedance ground plane for impedance controlled signals
provide low impedance ground plane for switching mode power supply and IC ground pins.
stitching ground planes together with vias to achieve low impedance
Use multilayered stackup with dedicated ground and signal layers
Sandwich signal layer with reference ground planes to provide low impedance
Add filters elements
ferrite beads/ PI filter for power rails
common mode chokes for high speed differential pairs
Shunt caps (i.e 0201 COG xx pF capacitors) placed for all digital signal connector pins.
See how to choose desense capacitor for more design details.
Change aggressor operating frequency to shift harmonics noise out of receivers' operating band and channels
Interleave the operation between transmitter and receiver to achieve time division isolation
Use spread spectrum clocking on high speed interface such as PCIE to reduce and spread EMI associated with high speed signals.
Bury high speed digital interface between ground planes
Add sufficient separation between high speeds signal to other signals; recommend at least 3x trace width separation
Use star connection to route power to RF IC power pins
Guard ring for all RF paths.
Stitch around the printed circuit board perimeter edge with ground stitching vias to form farade cage.
In this article, we've learned that RF desense is a radiated/conducted immunity problem specifically for wireless receivers. Often these self-generated noise/interference can be greatly suppressed by following good placement, layout, filtering, and shielding guidelines. It's very easy to point finger to bad hardware as a cause of poor connectivity; as a good designer, we now know that it's not the RF IC that is the problem but rather the system around it.
As an intelligent designer, we need to understand the system first to order to find root cause.