# Electronic – How to determine if a signal path needs to be treated as a transmission line

rise timetransmission line

I remember reading this somewhere but cannot find the ratio of the rise time vs. the propagation time (i.e. the trace length?) of a signal when transmission line effects come into effect?

For example – if I have a SPI bus running at 12.5MHz. If it runs a few inches through the PCB trace, it is not a transmission line – but at what length goes it become a transmission line (at least in theory). How to calculate that?

The boundary between lumped and distributed systems is not clear-cut but there are some commonly used values. For distributed systems transmission line theory is required.

The distinction is usually made based on the effective length of a signal or the feature of a signal like an edge. So it's important to consider the rise- and fall time of a signal and not the frequency. Nevertheless the frequency imposes an upper limit on the risetime.

In air a signal travels with about 85ps/in (~ 33ps/cm). The propagation delay depends on the dielectric constant, it is proportional to the square root of it. For a PCB with a dielectric constant of 4 (like FR4 which is in the range of 3 to 5) the propagation delay doubles.

A rising edge with a risetime of 1ns would occupy a trace length of 1ns/(2*85ps) ~ 6in (~ 15cm). At the driving side the signal is already high when at a 6in distance it just starts to rise.

So a 6in (15cm) track clearly is too long, since the potential varies from low to high along the track.

If the length of the track is between 1/6 or 1/4 of the effective length of a feature like an edge a system can be regarded as lumped.

So the upper limit for the example given above is between 6in / 6 (= 1 in, ~2.5cm) and 6in /4 (= 1.5in, ~4cm) for a trace on a PCB with a dielectric constant of 4.