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There are usually two basic types of signal transmission line interconnects used in PCBs: microstrip and stripline. There is a third type – coplanar without a reference plane but it is not very common in use.

A microstrip transmission line is composed of a single uniform trace – for the signal – located on the outer layer of a PCB, and parallel to a conducting ground plane, which provides the return path for the signal. The trace and the ground plane are separated by a certain height of PCB dielectric. A stripline is composed of a uniform trace – for the signal – located on the inner layer of a PCB. The trace is separated on each side by a parallel PCB dielectric layer and then a conducting plane.

In addition to conventional microstrip and stripline described above, a coplanar waveguide structure has the signal trace and the return path conductor on the same layer of the PCB. The signal trace is at the center and is surrounded by the two adjacent outer ground planes; it is called “coplanar” because these three flat structures are on the same plane. The PCB dielectric is located underneath. Both microstrip and stripline may have a coplanar structure.

When is an interconnection to be treated as a transmission line?

The set of electrical conductors (as stated above, at least two conductors are required: one for the signal and the other one for the return path, which is usually a ground plane) used for connecting a signal between its source and its destination is called a transmission line (and not just an interconnection) if it is not possible to ignore the time it takes for the signal to travel from the source to the destination, as compared to the time period of one-fourth of the wavelength of the higher frequency component in the signal.

Two very important properties of a transmission line are its characteristic impedance and its propagation delay per unit length; and if the impedance is not controlled along its entire length, or the line is not terminated by the right value of impedance, signal reflections, crosstalk, electromagnetic noise, etc. will occur, and degradation in signal quality may be severe enough to create errors in information being transmitted and received. Read our post on understanding signal integrity in PCBs.

When the signal frequencies (in case of analog signals) or the data transfer rates (in case of digital signals) are low (less than 50 MHz or 20 Mbps), the time it will take for a signal to travel from its source to its destination on a PCB would be very small (< 10%) compared to the time period of one-fourth of a wavelength or the fastest rise time of a digital pulse signal. In this case, it is possible to approximate interconnect by assuming that the signal at the destination follows the signal at its source at the same time. In such a low-speed scenario, the PCB signal can be analyzed by conventional network analysis techniques and we can ignore any signal propagation time or transmission line reflections, etc.

However, when dealing with signals at higher frequencies or higher data transfer rates, the signal propagation time on PCB conductors between the source and the destination cannot be ignored in comparison to the time period of one-fourth of a wavelength or the fastest pulse rise time. Therefore, it is not possible to analyze the behavior of such high-speed signals on PCB interconnects using ordinary network analysis techniques. Interconnects need to be considered as transmission lines and analyzed accordingly.

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