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 alongside 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.

A motivation for the use of quadrature amplitude modulation comes from the fact that a straight amplitude modulated signal, i.e. double sideband even with a suppressed carrier occupies twice the bandwidth of the modulating signal. This is very wasteful of the available frequency spectrum. QAM restores the balance by placing two independent double sideband suppressed carrier signals in the same spectrum as one ordinary double sideband supressed carrier signal.

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 as in the case of LTE 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. 4, 16, 64 . . . .

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.

Normally a QAM constellation is square and therefore the most common forms of QAM 16QAM, 64QAM and 256QAM.

The advantage of moving to the higher order formats is that there are more points within the constellation and therefore it is possible to transmit more bits per symbol. The downside is that the constellation points are closer together and therefore the link is more susceptible to noise. As a result, higher order versions of QAM are only used when there is a sufficiently high signal to noise ratio.

To provide an example of how QAM operates, the constellation diagram below shows the values associated with the different states for a 16QAM signal. From this it can be seen that a continuous bit stream may be grouped into fours and represented as a sequence.

A diagram of the modulation constellation for 16QAM showing the 16 modulation points and the bit mapping
Bit sequence mapping for a 16QAM signal

Normally the lowest order QAM encountered is 16QAM. The reason for this being the lowest order normally encountered is that 2QAM is the same as binary phase-shift keying, BPSK, and 4QAM is the same as quadrature phase-shift keying, QPSK.

Additionally 8QAM is not widely used. This is because error-rate performance of 8QAM is almost the same as that of 16QAM - it is only about 0.5 dB better and the data rate is only three-quarters that of 16QAM. This arises from the rectangular, rather than square shape of the constellation.

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 vs other modulation formats

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:

Summary of types of modulation with data capacities
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

Typically it is found that if data rates above those that can be achieved using 8-PSK are required, it is more usual to use quadrature amplitude modulation. This is because it has a greater distance between adjacent points in the I - Q plane and this improves its noise immunity. As a result it can achieve the same data rate at a lower signal level.

However the points no longer the same amplitude. This means that the demodulator must detect both phase and amplitude. Also the fact that the amplitude varies means that a linear amplifier si required to amplify the signal.

By Ian Poole

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