Paul van Gerven
25 March

The demand for data has been exploding over the past years and will continue to do so for this decade to come. How will our telecom networks cope? KPN has partnered up with Eindhoven University of Technology to look at that challenge from every angle.

If there’s one sector that really shined during the corona crisis, it’s telecom. Reliable and high-speed internet connections kept large parts of the economy going and the quarantined entertained. This is only the beginning, however: many more opportunities are waiting to be unlocked by the beautiful marriage of telecom and digital services, ranging from self-driving cars to smart cities.

This, however, places heavy demands on our wired and wireless networks, which will need to shuttle ever higher amounts of data back and forth, efficiently and affordably. How will telecommunications companies make this happen, without letting energy demands get completely out of hand?

In a nutshell, this is what the public-private Smart collaboration is all about. Starting in 2017 with Smart One and recently expanded with Smart Two and Smart Two+, Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) and telecom company KPN are elaborating what the internet of the future will look like, and what you can do with it.

Eavesdropping

Smart is an umbrella program, encompassing a wide range of research projects. “An eclectic approach is required because different aspects across communication systems tie into one another. The overarching goal of our systems is to deliver ever more relevant data to users, economically and energy efficient. This depends as much on the characteristics of the network infrastructure as it does on the various higher-level aspects,” says Ton Koonen, who leads the Electro-optical Communications research group at TUE and oversees several Smart projects.

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One example would be how network technology affects security. Wireless connections are susceptible to eavesdropping because radio waves aren’t confined to a particular place or space. It would be great if the practicality of a wireless connection could be combined with the inherent security of a wired one.

This is the focus of one Smart project: extending optical signals from optical fibers all the way to the living room (or any other room). Currently, optical signals tend to stop at the doorstep: as soon as they reach the building, they’re converted into electrical and radio signals for wired and Wi-Fi connections, respectively. Koonen’s group is working on ‘optical Wi-Fi,’ thus eliminating the need for signal conversions and enabling end-to-end optical connections.

In this system, signals are distributed by optical fibers to ceiling-mounted antennas in different rooms. From there, they’re wirelessly transmitted to various devices using narrow infrared beams. Because these beams, unlike radio waves, are highly directional, eavesdropping is much more difficult. “In cases where very high security is needed, the windows could be coated with an infrared-blocking coating,” says Koonen. Other advantages of his optical wireless system include much higher data rates, lower latency and lower energy consumption, compared to regular Wi-Fi.

Outside our houses and offices, radio waves networks will also face competition from other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. In dense urban areas and crowded places like sports stadiums, 5G networks will harness the power of millimeter waves (mm-waves) to provide high-bandwidth wireless connections to a large number of people simultaneously. Wedged between microwave and infrared waves, mm-waves offer very fast data transfer, but at a cost: they don’t reach very far, they don’t bend around corners and they’re easily blocked by objects and even people.

This last downside is being looked at by TUE’s Electromagnetics group. By studying the effects of human movement on the quality of mm-wave transmission, researchers expect to obtain clues about how to build mm-wave base stations that minimize this type of blocking. They’ll also gain insight into where to best place the base stations.

Optical wireless
One of the Smart projects is working on ‘optical Wi-Fi.’ In this system, signals are distributed by optical fibers to ceiling-mounted antennas in different rooms. From there, they’re wirelessly transmitted to various devices using narrow infrared beams. Credit: Eindhoven University of Technology

Semantic data

A perhaps surprising element that enters into the equation when considering the communication systems of the future is architecture. The way our houses and buildings are constructed affects the kind of communication systems we can set up in there and hence what services can or cannot be provided. That’s why there are also Smart research projects performed together with TUE’s Department of the Built Environment.

In terms of networking ICT, houses and buildings are the most heterogeneous environments, adds Nico Baken, strategist at KPN, part-time professor in Koonen’s research group and initiator of the Smart collaborations. “That makes them the most challenging environments for a company like KPN. The problem is: we don’t know much about them. It would enable great new possibilities if we had a kind of fingerprint, a kind of genome, of all our houses and offices. That would considerably help with designing the ideal network for them.”

Particularly in smart buildings, in which heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting are controlled down to individual rooms and user preferences, it’s not just about the network and the sensors collecting the data, but also about data handling. Bringing together streams of different types of data is by no means trivial – current methods are not yet fully capable of doing that.

That’s why researchers at TUE’s Department of the Built Environment are studying digital representations of buildings that can integrate all the information. These digital twins (or, in this case, building twins) link different data models to improve monitoring, decision-making, automation, optimization and individualized control of buildings. This will improve user comfort while reducing energy consumption.

Another project at the Department of the Built Environment is about self-driving cars, and, more specifically, about how they can safely find their ways around cities and highways. This, too, isn’t just a matter of hardware (network infrastructure and processors at various levels), it also requires new ways to handle data. The Smart researchers are looking into using so-called semantic data models for handling mobility-related data in the future. Essentially, these models, constructed using promising new techniques that are also used for building the next generation of the internet (Web 3.0), add context-related meaning to the data and the relationships between them. This allows for seamlessly linking and integrating different data sources, which will contribute to a safer and more efficient traffic ecosystem.

Very happy

Though future oriented, some Smart research is already paying off for KPN. “Especially in artificial intelligence, we enjoy the fruits of the program. Thanks to AI, we’re able to spot issues before they become big problems, so we can fix them before the customer even notices,” says Baken.

Even if most research results need a couple of years of maturation before KPN can take advantage of them, they’re very valuable for his company, stresses Baken. “There’s profit and there’s value. We do not work with universities for an immediate profit, we’re in it for the value. It allows us to see more of the future, which helps us to determine which directions to take. Recently at KPN, we made a systematic inventory of our needs. These turn out to align beautifully with the research projects we’re involved in, so we’re very happy.”

For his part, Koonen considers working with industry to be a natural phenomenon. “Before joining TUE, I worked in industrial research environments for over twenty years. So, like many of my colleagues here, I have many connections in industry. And that’s how it should be: we want our students to understand how to connect knowledge and skills with applications. After all, the technology that we’re working on here is meant to be applied.”

Main picture credit: Eindhoven University of Technology/Bart van Overbeeke