Collin Arocho
31 October

4G cellular network capacity is about to reach its limit but the transition to the next-generation 5G network will certainly be no easy task. In an effort to ensure the rollout of the new technology, the Dutch private and public sectors are teaming up as Eindhoven University of Technology joins industry giants NXP and KPN to pave the way.

As the number of connected devices and network capacity demands continue to explode, the fourth generation of cellular-network technology, known as 4G, is fast approaching the end of the line. In anticipation of the release of the new 5G network, Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) is linking with NXP and KPN from the Dutch private sector to usher in new innovations for the successful rollout of the next-gen cellular network.

Similar to its 3G predecessor, 4G uses low-frequency bands to transmit data – meaning the bands on the radio signal spectrum from 700 MHz to 2 GHz. While it’s nearly 100 times faster than 3G, with maximum speeds around 40 megabits per second (Mb/s), the current standard is simply not going to cut it going forward. Consumer and industrial markets have already begun to shift toward a system of interrelated computing devices, objects and machines – known as the internet of things (IoT) – where issues of latency, or data lag, have proven to be a nightmare for innovators. Cumulatively, the demand for mobile broadband data will only go up in the coming years.

The Dutch cooperation developed new beam-steering technology, allowing the radiating antennas to drive the beams into multiple specific directions and using multiple polarizations. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Millimeter wave

Historically, it has taken about ten years to establish each new generation of the wireless network. With every increment, the data rates are improved by a factor of 100. The expectations for 5G are no different. At its initial release, slated for 2020, 5G will start by utilizing the 4G infrastructure and the same low-frequency bands. By 2022, however, a new radio band of 3.5 GHz is expected to be opened in the Netherlands and available for licensing, followed by other bands in significantly higher ranges, such as 30 GHz and up – so-called millimeter wave.

This is the point where the network of the future will require new technology – 5G mm-wave. “At first, it will be a kind of evolution from 4G to 5G,” explains project leader and TUE professor Bart Smolders. “When 5G millimeter wave is deployed, that’s the point you’ll see the big jump in data speeds. We’re talking about going from 100 Mb/s to perhaps as high as 10 Gb/s. That’s the technology we’re working on together with NXP.”

Industry 4.0

Offering potential speeds higher than household broadband internet, the expectations for the 5G network are incredibly steep. For that reason, it’s difficult to understate the perceived value of such a shift in technology. Latency issues will be a problem from a bygone era, which means the doors will be wide open for innovators, from virtually every industry, to develop new methods for a connected future. Potentially revolutionizing the way connectivity is understood.

From developments in med-tech monitoring and wearables to increases in production at high-tech factories, or autonomous driving trains, buses, and cars, the opportunities seem limitless, at least for now. Smolders: “Some examples of industries that could really benefit from these advances include companies like ASML or VDL. In factories, all kinds of mechanical movements could be controlled using a wireless link instead of a wired infrastructure. It’s often referred to as industry 4.0, and low latency is key for such applications.”

Step by step

While all the possibilities of 5G are exciting, there are still some challenges to overcome. One of the main barriers to the rollout of the new network is the sheer size of the infrastructure upgrades that will need to be implemented. Because 5G will adopt higher frequencies, the propagation loss of the signals will increase. In other words, the higher the frequency, the lower the distance the waves can travel. As a result, the network will require a mass installation of smaller, 150-meter cells equipped with massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology. Essentially, this technology groups together antennas on the transmitter and receiver in order to ensure better spectrum efficiency and throughput. Because of the number of cells that will be needed, streetlights are one of the best installation options, in order to offer broad connectivity.

Additionally, the intricacies and implications of any new technology can be difficult to prognosticate. Therefore, the collaborators suggest taking an incremental approach to implementation. “Mm-wave components are becoming available just now but it’s still a step towards a massive rollout of full-speed 5G for consumers,” says NXP system architect Marcel Geurts. “The lower bands are far more similar to what’s already available, so it’s a very obvious choice to go step by step and utilize the current infrastructure. Mm-wave technology is currently used in fixed wireless access deployments in the US and for mobile applications in city centers in several countries.”

Award winning

Despite these challenges, the collaborative is quite advanced in its work. In fact, as part of the separate European project called the EAST consortium (“Smart everything, everywhere access to content through small cell technologies”), NXP and TUE, among others, received the Catrene Award for driving 5G innovation. The honor came thanks to their efficient 5G small cell and massive MIMO system. This method allows for the switching of 5G transmitters across bands without unwanted signals in other bands, in addition to reducing power consumption and saving costs.

While the Dutch cooperation takes place under the guidance and direction of the industry leaders from NXP and KPN, it’s the students from Eindhoven University of Technology that are at the heart of this public-private collaboration. In these projects, PhD and master’s students receive first-hand experience in the development and design process of 5G solutions, working hand in hand with the Dutch industry giants. In fact, through their collaborative efforts, the Dutch collaborators have already yielded some impressive results of their own.

Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Demonstrator

One outcome of the collaborative work stems from close cooperation between KPN and TUE. For this part of the project, PhD students worked closely with engineers from the telecom company to develop new channel sounders – a device to measure signal quality in the field. This data will give engineers valuable insight into the planning process for installing base stations for the rollout of 5G.

Additionally, in anticipation of the shift to 5G, NXP has already spent the last five years developing amplifiers and more efficient antennas for millimeter-wave technology. By capitalizing on the chipmaker’s five-year head start and its technology prowess, the engineering PhD students at TUE were able to jump in and help design a new demonstrator with expanded chip capabilities for next-gen products. The team developed new beam-steering technology, allowing the radiating antennas to drive the beams into multiple specific directions and using multiple polarizations, as opposed to being limited only to a single polarization – a feat that requires double the number of chips normally needed and presents a plethora of additional complexity and challenges.

“It was a very successful cooperation,” describes Geurts. “We weren’t just the suppliers of a component. We really wanted to drive the system specifications based on the customer needs and the result was this next-gen technology. This project, with NXP chips that are already being produced, is an example of how this collaboration can work and the result is that we become a better partner to our customers.”