If you’re an experienced RF communications engineer, you probably don’t have to read this blog. But if you’re a beginning engineer, an engineer recently assigned to a communication project, a tech manager overseeing communications engineers, or those of you who test or sell comm gear, you may want to take a look.
Learning About Comm
The largest sector of electronics is communications. Name an electronic product today that does NOT have some comm function. If you dig out the sales figures for all electronics, the dominant money is in cellular systems and smartphones, not to mention Wi-Fi LANs, the internet, IoT, electronic-warfare systems, satellites, and so on. And of course, the new one, 5G radio, is here today and beginning its long rollout. Time to learn more comm.
Assuming that you didn’t learn the basics in college, you can dig it out on your own with books and magazines. Comm was well-represented in colleges and universities until about 1960. Then the digital revolution and computers came along. The colleges steadily dropped RF and comm-related classes to meet the demand for engineers who could design digital logic circuits, work with microcontrollers, and write programs.
For a while comm was one more thing you couldn’t learn in college. But now it’s come back with a vengeance as the wireless world developed. Chances are you didn’t learn comm in college (okay, maybe a required “fields” course with Maxwell’s equations). Today, every EE needs to know something about comm.
Take an Exam
I recommend getting some books and learning it on your own. A good way to zero in and learn it fast is to take a known comm test. An exam will clarify your knowledge. A number of tests are available for becoming licensed, certified, or registered by a number of organizations. Prepping for one of these tests will really show you what you ought to know.
Anyone wanting to radiate a signal into our precious spectrum needs to be responsible for knowing what you can and can’t do. A comprehensive test is the way to find out. A starting point may be the tests for becoming a ham radio operator. These required exams cover electronics fundamentals, common comm circuits and practices. The tests are administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
I got my ham license early in my life, and I still have my Extra Class license (W5LEF). Ham radio is just a hobby, but isn’t learning more about the subject a major part of doing it?
In ham radio, you can build your own gear or buy commercial equipment. You can communicate worldwide in the shortwave range of the spectrum (3 to 30 MHz). Or participate in local clubs with repeaters using FM handie talkies (HTs) in the 146- and 440-MHz VHF/UHF bands, communicate through satellites, and/or experiment with 1.26- and 10-GHz equipment as well as software-defined radios. The whole hobby is a lifelong comm learning experience. And today you needn’t take a Morse code test.
Another license to aspire to is a commercial radio license, which have exams that are also managed by the FCC. It used to be that you needed one of these licenses to operate radio and TV stations, operate or repair marine or aircraft radios, along with a mixed bag of other radio services.
Today, the FCC only provides one license—the General Radiotelephone Operator License (GROL)—for all its competency requirements. It’s an excellent exam that really tests what you know about general electronics, comm theory, and circuits. The FCC also offers some special license endorsement exams. I recommend the radar and GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) exams. I’ve encountered some employers who ask for the GROL license as a hiring credential. In any case, most comms-savvy people know what it is and that it ensures an employee knows the fundamentals.
To see what these exams are like, go to the FCC website and download their test question pools for the ham licenses and the GROL (https://www.fcc.gov/search/#q=exams). Then teach yourself the tests. Simply view this as a short course you give yourself by just looking up the answers if you don’t already know them.
As a substitute for the GROL or an enhancement, a certification is a next step. Some certifications that may prove valuable are those offered by the International Association for Radio Telecommunications and Electromagnetics. They provide both technician and engineering level exams and certifications. Go to their website www.iNARTE.org.
One of their most relevant certifications is the iNARTE Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC/EMI) Certification Program. It’s addressed to professional engineers working in EMC/EMI, covering the basics of bonding, shielding, grounding, EMI prediction, EMI analysis, conducted and radiated interference, and lightning protection. This is a hot area today with wireless devices emitting a blizzard of electromagnetic waves.
Interference mitigation is a top priority for all comm engineers. Several other wireless certifications cover military and spectrum management. Check them out. Then get their study materials and prep for the exam. You will learn a lot.
The mother-of-all-comms-certifications as far as I’m concerned is the IEEE Wireless Communications Technologies (WCET) certification. It includes a wide range of wireless topics in seven specialty areas that pretty much cover the subject. The tests cover fundamentals areas, but others emphasize cellular topics.
I studied for the WECT for a while and did good in the fundamentals areas, but poorly in the networking, architecture, infrastructure, and policy areas. I even took the online prep course, but never took the exam. If you really want to gauge how much you know, this is the one to go for. If you pass the exam, you’ll certainly be a guru. Go to www.ieee-wcet.org to get their info and study materials.
Cisco also has a wireless certification, the Cisco Certified Networking Associate Wireless (CCNA Wireless). Widely recognized in industry, it’s a good certification to have these days. Studying for their exam will prep you for comm work.
Finally, I’ve run across some comm specializations in state professional engineering (P.E.) exams. You need to check with your state to see what’s available. The PE exams are really tough, but P.E. is a nice addition to have on your resume. So is almost any FCC license or certification.
You can learn a great deal by studying for these exams and certifications. And to get there, you’ll need some books for reference. Of course, there’s lots of study material on the internet. Use the certifying body’s subject study guidelines for topics and depth. Here’s a list of books I recommend that should help:
1. American Radio Relay League (ARRL), Newington, CT, Handbook for Radio Communications, 2020 or latest edition. The handbook has been published for decades. It’s a great source for electronic and comms fundamentals, and is kept up-to-date because they revise it every year. Its focus is ham radio and hands-on projects. It also serves as a great and general wireless knowledge source.
2. Dowla, Farid, Editor, Handbook of RF and Wireless Technologies, Newnes, Elsevier, 2004. Covers a lot of ground, but short and to the point.
3. Federal Communications, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 47, Parts 00 to 99. A must-have set of books that state the federal rules and regulations about wireless. All comm engineers should have this set—they need to know Parts 15 and 18 for radio testing in order to ensure minimal EMI. Get a set online via the Government Printing Office.
4. Frenzel, Louis, Principles of Electronic Communication Systems, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 2016 My own book. If you’re looking for comprehensive coverage of wireless communications, this is a good introduction. It’s a college text, full-color, and hardcover. And a lab manual. I’m currently working on the 5th edition, so that it’s up-to-date on topics like 5G, IoT, millimeter waves, and testing.
5. Goldsmith, Andrea, Wireless Communications, Cambridge University Press, 2005. A good comm book, heavy on the math.
6. Horowitz, P., and Hill, W., The Art of Electronics, 3d edition, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2015. This is probably one of the best electronic reference books available. Not much comm material, but it’s very detailed and at the engineering level, though readable. Everyone who designs electronic circuits, or otherwise works with equipment, should have a copy.
7. Multiple authors, Communications Engineering Desk Reference, Academic Press, Elsevier, 2009, Short and to the point as should be the case with a reference.
8. Mesiya, M.F., Contemporary Communications Systems, McGraw Hill, 2013. Good depth but easy to follow. Math heavy.
These are the books I keep going back to. And for real fundamentals and references, I still use two old books I have had for years:
- Terman, Fredrich, Electronic and Radio Engineering, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill, 1955. Timeless coverage of the basics. Ignore all of the vacuum tube stuff and focus on the general theory and practice.
- ITT, Reference Data for Radio Engineers, 4th edition, 1946. Loaded with lots of tables, graphs, formulas, and detailed design procedures.
These two are no longer published, but you may find them online or in a used-book store.
Engineering is a lifelong learning experience. This is a good time and place to start teaching yourself how to learn.