What is PSK, Phase Shift Keying

- overview, information and tutorial about the basics of what is phase shift keying, PSK, used for radio communications applications, and in particular for digital forms of radio communications.

Phase shift keying, PSK, is widely used these days within a whole raft of radio communications systems. It is particularly well suited to the growing area of data communications. PSK, phase shift keying enables data to be carried on a radio communications signal in a more efficient manner than Frequency Shift Keying, FSK, and some other forms of modulation.

With more forms of communications transferring from analogue formats to digital formats, data communications is growing in importance, and along with it the various forms of modulation that can be used to carry data.

There are several flavours of phase shift keying, PSK that are available for use. Each form has its own advantages and disadvantages, and a choice of the optimum format has to be made for each radio communications system that is designed. To make the right choice it is necessary to have a knowledge and understanding of the way in which PSK works.

Phase Shift Keying, PSK, basics

Like any form of shift keying, there are defined states or points that are used for signalling the data bits. The basic form of binary phase shift keying is known as Binary Phase Shift Keying (BPSK) or it is occasionally called Phase Reversal Keying (PRK). A digital signal alternating between +1 and -1 (or 1 and 0) will create phase reversals, i.e. 180 degree phase shifts as the data shifts state.

Binary phase shift keying, BPSK

Binary phase shift keying, BPSK

The problem with phase shift keying is that the receiver cannot know the exact phase of the transmitted signal to determine whether it is in a mark or space condition. This would not be possible even if the transmitter and receiver clocks were accurately linked because the path length would determine the exact phase of the received signal. To overcome this problem PSK systems use a differential method for encoding the data onto the carrier. This is accomplished, for example, by making a change in phase equal to a one, and no phase change equal to a zero. Further improvements can be made upon this basic system and a number of other types of phase shift keying have been developed. One simple improvement can be made by making a change in phase by 90 degrees in one direction for a one, and 90 degrees the other way for a zero. This retains the 180 degree phase reversal between one and zero states, but gives a distinct change for a zero. In a basic system not using this process it may be possible to loose synchronisation if a long series of zeros are sent. This is because the phase will not change state for this occurrence.

There are many variations on the basic idea of phase shift keying. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages enabling system designers to choose the one most applicable for any given circumstances. Other common forms include QPSK (Quadrature phase shift keying) where four phase states are used, each at 90 degrees to the other, 8-PSK where there are eight states and so forth.

PSK constellation diagrams

It is often convenient to represent a phase shift keyed signal, and sometimes other types of signal using a phasor or constellation diagram. Using this scheme, the phase of the signal is represented by the angle around the circle, and the amplitude by the distance from the origin or centre of the circle. In this way the can be signal resolved into quadrature components representing the sine or I for In-phase component and the cosine for the quadrature component. Most phase shift keyed systems use a constant amplitude and therefore points appear on one circle with a constant amplitude and the changes in state being represented by movement around the circle. For binary shift keying using phase reversals the two points appear at opposite points on the circle. Other forms of phase shift keying may use different points on the circle and there will be more points on the circle.

BPSK constellation diagram

Constellation diagram for BPSK

When plotted using test equipment errors may be seen from the ideal positions on the phase diagram. These errors may appear as the result of inaccuracies in the modulator and transmission and reception equipment, or as noise that enters the system. It can be imagined that if the position of the real measurement when compared to the ideal position becomes too large, then data errors will appear as the receiving demodulator is unable to correctly detect the intended position of the point around the circle.

QPSK constellation diagram

Constellation diagram for QPSK

Using a constellation view of the signal enables quick fault finding in a system. If the problem is related to phase, the constellation will spread around the circle. If the problem is related to magnitude, the constellation will spread off the circle, either towards or away from the origin. These graphical techniques assist in isolating problems much faster than when using other techniques.

QPSK is used for the forward link form the base station to the mobile in the IS-95 cellular system and uses the absolute phase position to represent the symbols. There are four phase decision points, and when transitioning from one state to another, it is possible to pass through the circle's origin, indicating minimum magnitude.

On the reverse link from mobile to base station, O-QPSK is used to prevent transitions through the origin. Consider the components that make up any particular vector on the constellation diagram as X and Y components. Normally, both of these components would transition simultaneously, causing the vector to move through the origin. In O-QPSK, one component is delayed, so the vector will move down first, and then over, thus avoiding moving through the origin, and simplifying the radio's design. A constellation diagram will show the accuracy of the modulation.

Forms of phase shift keying

Although phase modulation is used for some analogue transmissions, it is far more widely used as a digital form of modulation where it switches between different phases. This is known as phase shift keying, PSK, and there are many flavours of this. It is even possible to combine phase shift keying and amplitude keying in a form of modulation known as quadrature amplitude modulation, QAM.

The list below gives some of the more commonly used forms of phase shift keying, PSK, and related forms of modulation that are used:

  • PSK - Phase Shift Keying
  • BPSK - Binary Phase Shift Keying
  • QPSK - Quadrature Phase Shift Keying
  • O-QPSK - Offset Quadrature Phase Shift Keying
  • 8 PSK - 8 Point Phase Shift Keying
  • 16 PSK - 16 Point Phase Shift Keying
  • QAM - Quadrature Amplitude Modulation
  • 16 QAM - 16 Point Quadrature Amplitude Modulation
  • 64 QAM - 64 Point Quadrature Amplitude Modulation
  • MSK - Minimum Shift Keying
  • GMSK - Gaussian filtered Minimum Shift Keying

These are just some of the major forms of phase shift keying, PSK, that are widely used in radio communications applications today. Each form of phase shift keying has its own advantages and disadvantages. In general the higher order forms of modulation allow higher data rates to be carried within a given bandwidth. However the downside is that the higher data rates require a better signal to noise ratio before the error rates start to rise and this counteracts any improvements in data rate performance. In view of this balance many radio communications systems are able to dynamically choose the form of modulation depending upon the prevailing conditions and requirements.

By Ian Poole

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