What is QAM - Quadrature Amplitude Modulation

- overview, information and tutorial about the basics of what is QAM, Quadrature Amplitude Modulation, a form of modulation used for radio communications applications.

Quadrature Amplitude Modulation or QAM is a form of modulation which is widely used for modulating data signals onto a carrier used for radio communications. It is widely used because it offers advantages over other forms of data modulation such as PSK, although many forms of data modulation operate along side each other.

Quadrature Amplitude Modulation, QAM is a signal in which two carriers shifted in phase by 90 degrees are modulated and the resultant output consists of both amplitude and phase variations. In view of the fact that both amplitude and phase variations are present it may also be considered as a mixture of amplitude and phase modulation.

Analogue and digital QAM

Quadrature amplitude modulation, QAM may exist in what may be termed either analogue or digital formats. The analogue versions of QAM are typically used to allow multiple analogue signals to be carried on a single carrier. For example it is used in PAL and NTSC television systems, where the different channels provided by QAM enable it to carry the components of chroma or colour information. In radio applications a system known as C-QUAM is used for AM stereo radio. Here the different channels enable the two channels required for stereo to be carried on the single carrier.

Digital formats of QAM are often referred to as "Quantised QAM" and they are being increasingly used for data communications often within radio communications systems. Radio communications systems ranging from cellular technology through wireless systems including WiMAX, and Wi-Fi 802.11 use a variety of forms of QAM, and the use of QAM will only increase within the field of radio communications.

Digital / Quantised QAM basics

Quadrature amplitude modulation, QAM, when used for digital transmission for radio communications applications is able to carry higher data rates than ordinary amplitude modulated schemes and phase modulated schemes. As with phase shift keying, etc, the number of points at which the signal can rest, i.e. the number of points on the constellation is indicated in the modulation format description, e.g. 16QAM uses a 16 point constellation.

When using QAM, the constellation points are normally arranged in a square grid with equal vertical and horizontal spacing and as a result the most common forms of QAM use a constellation with the number of points equal to a power of 2 i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16 . . . .

By using higher order modulation formats, i.e. more points on the constellation, it is possible to transmit more bits per symbol. However the points are closer together and they are therefore more susceptible to noise and data errors.

To provide an example of how QAM operates, the table below provides the bit sequences, and the associated amplitude and phase states. From this it can be seen that a continuous bit stream may be grouped into threes and represented as a sequence of eight permissible states.

Bit sequence Amplitude Phase (degrees)
000 1/2 0 (0°)
000 1 0 (0°)
010 1/2 π/2 (90°)
011 1 πi/2 (90°)
100 1/2 π (180°)
101 1 π (180°)
110 1/2 3πi/2 (270°)
111 1 3π/2 (270°)

Bit sequences, amplitudes and phases for 8-QAM

Phase modulation can be considered as a special form of QAM where the amplitude remains constant and only the phase is changed. By doing this the number of possible combinations is halved.

QAM advantages and disadvantages

Although QAM appears to increase the efficiency of transmission for radio communications systems by utilising both amplitude and phase variations, it has a number of drawbacks. The first is that it is more susceptible to noise because the states are closer together so that a lower level of noise is needed to move the signal to a different decision point. Receivers for use with phase or frequency modulation are both able to use limiting amplifiers that are able to remove any amplitude noise and thereby improve the noise reliance. This is not the case with QAM.

The second limitation is also associated with the amplitude component of the signal. When a phase or frequency modulated signal is amplified in a radio transmitter, there is no need to use linear amplifiers, whereas when using QAM that contains an amplitude component, linearity must be maintained. Unfortunately linear amplifiers are less efficient and consume more power, and this makes them less attractive for mobile applications.

QAM comparison with other modes

As there are advantages and disadvantages of using QAM it is necessary to compare QAM with other modes before making a decision about the optimum mode. Some radio communications systems dynamically change the modulation scheme dependent upon the link conditions and requirements - signal level, noise, data rate required, etc.

The table below compares various forms of modulation:

Modulation Bits per symbol Error margin Complexity
OOK 1 1/2 0.5 Low
BPSK 1 1 1 Medium
QPSK 2 1 / √2 0.71 Medium
16 QAM 4 √2 / 6 0.23 High
64QAM 6 √2 / 14 0.1 High

Summary of types of modulation with data capacities

By Ian Poole

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