Dealing with the effects of Explosive Mobile-Data Growth
The tremendous popularity of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, as well as cloud-based services for business and personal use, means that around 70% of users in Europe now access the Internet via wireless connections. Globally, about 1.6 Exabytes of mobile data was being generated per month, according to Cisco's Visual Networking Index (VNI) report published back in 2014. All this is having a dramatic effect on mobile network power consumption. Today, operators are spending an estimated $2 billion a year simply to power their networks, and basestations are consuming a high proportion of that budget. According to figures from Vodafone, basestations account for almost 60% of total mobile network power consumption, while 20% is consumed by mobile switching equipment and around 15% by the core infrastructure. A typical 3G basestation uses about 500W of input power to produce only about 40W of output RF power.
The typical average annual energy consumption of a 3G basestation is around 4.5MWh. So it is no wonder that with an estimated 5 million basestations globally, researchers are looking at ways of reducing the energy bill as well as the large amount of carbon dioxide emissions and heat. A new European research project based in Eindhoven is working on meeting the challenges that 5G will bring. Jonathan Marks of PhotonDelta spoke with the new Bluespace team leader to find out the role microwave photonics will play in 5G.
Returning to Eindhoven
My name is Idelfonso Tafur Monroy. I have just returned to join the Eindhoven based “Institute for Photonic Integration” and to help establish the PICT, the PhotonDelta Photonics Integration Technology Centre as the new director for the Photonics Systems Activities. I am also a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, in the group led by Professor Ton Koonen, to establish the Photonic Terahertz systems research.
I say “returned” because I already know this region of the Netherlands as an incredibly collaborative and innovative hotspot. I spent ten very happy years at the Electrical Engineering Department from 1996 -2006, doing my PhD. and working as an assistant professor. In the intervening period between then and now, I founded the metro-access and short-range communications group in the Department of Photonics Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark until June 2017. I retain my involvement in a spin-out company called Bifrost Communications which I helped to found. It has the potential of doing for 5G and datacentre communications that Bluetooth did for consumer device communications.
Many people don’t realize the exponential growth in wireless devices is having a huge impact on the mobile networks. 70% of people in Western Europe are accessing information from the Internet on wireless devices.
So what challenges are you working on now?
Communication networks are the driving force behind many changes in our society. Photonics is starting to have a knock-on effect to different infrastructures like healthcare (needless testing for diseases), food safety as well as environment monitoring on earth and from space. It’s becoming clearer that light-based technologies are the key to building smaller, cheaper, faster devices to solve a lot of these challenges.
For instance, you can test the levels of blood-sugar by simply pinching the skin and using a photonics enabled detector. That's a breakthrough for diabetes detection, especially in areas where dirty needles can spread deadly viruses.
We must shrink devices
In several cases the technology has been clinically tried and tested, but the machines to carry out the procedures are still too large and expensive. We should bring down the size of the modules so the proven technology can be incorporated into handheld or even wearable devices. This demands a more disruptive approach by research institutes or this is never going to scale. The photonics components need to work in combination with electronics. This explains why there are several projects in Eindhoven, like WIPE, currently underway to build hybrid systems onto the same chip.
Recent global studies by Ericsson have highlighted the impact broadband speeds are having on local economies around the world. In OECD countries, upgrading from 0.5 Mbps to 4 Mbps increases household income by around US $322 per month – In BIC countries, upgrading from 0.5 to 4 Mbps increases income by US$ 46 per month.
I’ve been looking at the huge challenges Internet providers are facing to deliver very fast Internet to very wide areas. It turns out that we cannot easily scale data-centres, and, today, you need to be within 10 kms of a fibre-optic switching centre to get the very fast data rates and low latency that are needed for smooth 4K home video and gaming services.
Most Internet Access is Wireless
Many people don’t realize the exponential growth in wireless devices is having a huge impact on the mobile networks. 70% of people in Western Europe are accessing information from the Internet on wireless devices. Until now, we have designed networks on the principle of a single core per optical fibre. We are looking at networks that will be built using have 7, 19 or perhaps 39 cores per fibre. Not only are there challenges in connecting such cables together (especially if they get damaged), but we need to look at the cladding material that is wrapped around a fibre to protect it. For environmental reasons, we want to use approximately the same amount of protective material to protect 39 cores instead of just one. Sounds simple. In practice, it is not.
Bifrost Breakthrough Technologies bring faster Internet outside cities.
That Danish startup Bifrost Communication that I ‘m involved with is working on a flexible channel selective receiver. They can pick out light signals that are 10 times weaker than conventional PiN photodetector based receivers do today. For the first time, multiple channel fibre-based internet to the home or business is going to be possible up to 40 kilometres from the digital switch, instead of 10 km. This translates into a reduction of millions of Euros in costs for both Operational and capital expenditure for the providers.
At the same time, the technology makes it possible to configure 8 times more users (256 instead of 32) on the same fibre. We think all this means internet providers can decommission 90% of their central switching facilities. They can do this with low-cost standard lasers, and the system is fully compatible with the fibre that is already in the ground.
Anticipated roll-out of 5G Networks
There is a lot of talk about the next generation 5G networks. We will see the first public demonstrations of these at the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year, with more extensive offerings appearing in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. I expect major 5G rollout in Western Europe around 2022. But a lot of technical challenges need to be solved before then.
The infrastructure needed to support 5G is going to be massive. It is beyond what most people can comprehend -and that includes industry specialists. Remember the telecom industry has taken the 4G capacity and transmission norms from 2010 and set themselves the goal to make the new 5G network 1000 times faster, reaching 7 billion people while using 90% less energy.
And the new factor is that 7 trillion Internet of Things devices need to be securely connected and operate with zero or extremely low latency. Yes, I said 7 trillion because no-one wants to buy a device to find it doesn't connect reliably. And if the sensor is controlling the movement of a self-driving car or truck platoon, it must operate instantaneously. No connection is just not an option!
Fibre to the Antenna
Clearly, current technologies are not going to scale up. To be an interesting proposition for the operators, as well customers, we will need a different architecture. For instance, today many mobile base-stations use electronic switching inside the base-station mast and then convert this to an optical signal at the base where the fibre comes in. It turns out that this is one of the biggest bottlenecks in the 4G network. So, we're looking at bringing the fibre all the way up the mast and connecting it directly to the smart base-station antenna.
To the reduce power consumption by the network, we're involved in designing smart antennas that can beam a more concentrated signal in the direction of the mobile phone user. Once a caller dials a number, the 5G mast will work out the location and beam direction from the incoming mobile signal and then optimize both the transmission and reception. This beam-forming is best done optically so it can cope with many simultaneous users accessing the base station from different directions. With an estimated 18 million masts needed for a global 5G network, a lot is at stake if we want to reduce power consumption by 90%.
Enter Bluespace to take things further
We have proven things works in the laboratory and now some field trials are starting up. We will most likely see several vendors sharing the same 5G infrastructure so being able to give a dedicated set of optical fibre cores to each provider is going to be essential. We also need to build alternative backup distribution plans in-case one vendor suffers an outage. Our solution combines simplicity with a robust network architecture. The directional antenna elements can each have their own core fibre.
Some of these challenges are being investigated by a new consortium of 15 partners which we’re leading from Eindhoven University of Technology. This is a second phase of a 3-year EU project called Bluespace in which we're working with several innovative European photonics companies, each of which has complementary expertise and products. I’m personally very excited to see a lot of these plans coming together. Signup for our Newsletter to stay in touch with developments.
About Idelfonso Tafur Monroy
Idelfonso Tafur Monroy started his academic career in the Kharkov Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine, and graduated from the Bonch-Bruevitch Institute of Communications, St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1992, where he received a M.Sc. degree in multichannel telecommunications.
In 1996 he received a Technology Licentiate degree in telecommunications theory from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. The same year he joined the Electrical Engineering Department of the Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in 1999 and worked as an assistant professor until 2006.
He has since founded and led from 2007 the metro-access and short-range communications group of the Department of Photonics Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark where he was Professor until June 2017. He has also been a guest Professor at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, University of California at Berkeley and ITMO University Fellowship Professor.
Idelfonso has participated in several European research framework projects in photonic technologies and their applications to communication systems. He currently coordinates the H2020 ITN CELTA and 5G PPP BLUESPACE projects. His research interests are in photonics technologies for hybrid optical-wireless communications, high-capacity optical fibre transmission, and short-range data links.
He is co-author of over 500 journal and conference papers and has graduated 20 PhD students. He is co-founder of the Danish start-up Bifrost Communications which is developing a device that amplifies and separates fibre optical signals with the potential savings for the global telecommunications industries millions of Euros.