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In Wireless Communications, Dr. Molisch writes that the 802.11 standard "does not foresee truly adaptive modulation in the sense that the modulation alphabet can differ from subcarrier to subcarrier."

Why did the 802.11 standards committee not design towards allowing different data rates on different subcarriers?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ IIRC the rate does vary from carrier to carrier, but the modulation alphabet stays the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – Neil_UK
    Sep 21, 2017 at 6:35

2 Answers 2

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1) Because the symbol-recognition algorithms would differ across the subcarriers.

2) Because the phase noise tolerance would differ across the subcarriers, affecting how precisely the packet-packet phase-delta must be controlled.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) is obvious, but why is this a problem? The receiver would need to be able to perform all of the different symbol-recognition algorithms anyways, and it's not obvious to me that being able to do different demodulations in the same packet would be more expensive than just doing one. \$\endgroup\$
    – awelkie
    Sep 21, 2017 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ 2) doesn't make sense to me. Wouldn't the phase noise tolerance be the strictest out of all of the subcarriers? \$\endgroup\$
    – awelkie
    Sep 21, 2017 at 13:45
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Technologically it's completely possible to impose different modulations (eg. QPSK, 16 QAM, 64 QAM) on different OFDM subcarriers. Such thing even happens in 4G/LTE communication technology which works using resource blocks/elements composed of dynamically grouping different subcarriers blocks and time blocks. Refer to this answer.

So why doesn't it happen in 802.11? The reason is that its added benefits are not worth more than a corresponding increase in transmitter/receiver complexity.

When there is too much data corruption (BER) in the wireless link, when the wireless link quality is low (which generally happens with increasing distance from the transmitter), the transmitter dynamically shifts to lower modulation schemes (e.g. from 64 QAM to 16 QAM). This increases the SNR and reduces the BER. In the case of 802.11, the entire ensemble of subcarriers is servicing to a particular user at any moment. Thus if the wireless link quality is bad it will be bad for every OFDM subcarrier and the modulation of every subcarrier needs to be lowered down. (So is not the case with 4G/LTE as, in this case, a downlink frame is aimed at a whole set of different receivers. They extract their data/parts from their respective resource elements. Implementing different modulation on different subcarriers helps 4G/LTE systems to ensure good wireless link quality for all users at the same time)

NOTE: In 802.11, there is a provision to support different modulations on different "spatially multiplexed streams". Every single stream needs an independent radio chain. This can be particularly beneficial in MU-MIMO (Multiuser MIMO) where an access point is catering to different users at the same time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I generally agree. However, the answer you referenced, electronics.stackexchange.com/a/306092/127091 , is not talking about using different modulations on different OFDM subcarriers. It is talking about OFDM bursts in 802.11a, where different OFDM symbols may use different modulations, rather than different OFDM subcarriers within an OFDM symbol. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 1, 2020 at 5:27

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