Brazilian researchers develop connection systems, software and hardware for the new mobile phone and internet standard

Source: FAPESP Survey

A system developed under the technical coordination of Brazilian researchers may become a global standard to take the fifth-generation telecommunications technology (5G) to remote areas, benefiting 1.4 billion people in the world, who have no access to mobile phone and internet coverage nowadays. The innovation may also enable digital transformation and implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) in rural properties, mining companies, and infrastructures far from urban areas, such as water powerplants, power transmission lines, water distribution systems and railway grids.

Tests carried out in Santa Rita do Sapucaí, in the countryside of Minas Gerais, proved the capacity of a radio-base station system (ERBs) to transmit 5G signals, which will be the future global standard used by the mobile phone networks, at distance of 50 kilometers (km) and at speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). “In a 4G network, you get that speed at distance between 5 km and 10 km, or the opposite, you lose performance to reach long distances”, the electrical engineer Luciano Leonel Mendes, technical coordinator of the project and the Radiocommunications Reference Center of the National Communications Institute (CCR-Inatel), compares.

“The achieved data flow rate enables a drone, for example, to send high-resolution messages in real time from a plantation to assess whether there are pests or whether the irrigators are activated remotely. This also enables voice and data transmission at high speed, everything at the same time”, Mendes affirms.

The system, still unnamed, is a result from the work of a consortium formed by Brazilian and European institutions gathered in the 5G-Range Project, whose objective is to develop connectivity solutions in remote areas. In addition to Inatel, the following participate in the consortium: the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPQD), Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Universidade Federal do Ceará (UFC) and Universidade Federal de Brasília (UnB), Ericsson do Brasil and the European universities Carlos III from Madrid, Spain, University of Technology of Dresden, Germany, and University of Oulu, Finland, in addition to the Spanish company Telefónica I+D.

China, India, Russia, the United States, Finland and Australia are some of the countries, which have already shown interest in the solution created in Brazil, which faces competition from other systems managed in the world. It will still take some time for the technology to be available globally, because first, it will need approval by the international organization, which sets standards for mobile phone and broadband, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The document, which will bring the standards for 5G in remote areas, called Release 17, is scheduled for publication in 2025. “For now, we are working for the National Telecommunications Agency [Anatel] to approve the use of the technology in the national territory for applications in private networks in field or industries”, Mendes informs.

Specialists point out that the 5G technology should generate significant gain in performance in telecommunications, both in remote areas and in urban centers. While the current fourth-generation mobile networks (4G and its evolution, 4.5 G) show average speed from 15 Mbps to 25 Mbps, with maximum potential of 300 Mbps, the 5G connection promises speeds starting from 50 Mbps, which may reach almost 2 gigabits per second (see table below). A common comparison among the specialists is the download time of a high-resolution movie: 10 minutes in 4G and just a few seconds in 5G.

Latency, or a demand response time, is 5 milliseconds in 5G, one tenth of that registered in 4G. This difference is significant when this is about the response time of an autonomous vehicle to avoid a collision, to overcome something unexpected in a robotic surgery, or yet for industrial machines to synchronize their tasks. Another advantage of 5G is the density of devices capable of working simultaneously in the same area, 1 million devices per square kilometer (km²), while currently, it does not reach 100 thousand.

Implementation of the 5G technology started in 2019 in some countries in Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea and China. In Brazil, it is expected the call for bid for the public frequencies – those at which the telephone operators serve the common users – to be published in 2021. Anatel has already informed that four frequency ranges will be made available: 700 megahertz (MHz), 2.3 GHz (gigahertz), 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz.

The main telecommunication operators should participate in the bid; they will choose the technological package and the equipment providers, among them, the Chinese Huawei and ZTE, the South-Korean Samsung, the Swedish Ericsson and the Finnish Nokia. The call will define the exclusion or not of technology providers, the component nationalization index and the obligatory investments in R&D in the country.

Millimetric waves
The 5G technology enables use of a wide range of frequencies, since the so-called Ultra High Frequency (UHF), that designates the ranges between 300 MHz and 3 GHz – those used by the 5G-Range Consortium experiment of CCR-Inatel –, up to the millimetric waves frequencies between 24 GHz and 300 GHz. These higher frequencies are not used by the current 4G networks. Their advantage is that they enable higher connection speed. However, their range is reduced by hundreds of meters, and they are more easily blocked by physical objects, such as doors, walls, trees or even the human body. This demands the installation of a higher number of transmission antennas, more improved.

Research and development of technologies for circuits and systems, such as antennas, transmitters, receptors and radars, are the work focus of the newly-created Millimetric Waves Characterization Center (CentrommW) of the Polytechnical School (Poli) of USP inaugurated in April. It is the only one in Brazil equipped with instruments for characterization of circuits and systems in millimetric waves from up to 110 GHz. For this purpose, it was financed from FAPESP.

“Our proposal is to be a space for the industry to test its circuits, systems and equipment, but we are also committed to develop millimetric waves hardware solutions”, the electrical engineer Gustavo Rehder says; he is the Center coordinator in partnership with Ariana Serrano, also electrical engineer, both from the Electronic Systems Department of Poli-USP.

One of the focuses in the laboratory is the development of beamforming solutions, the formation of a beam for the signal transmission to avoid the waves dispersion that occurs in traditional antennas. “The goal is to direct the radiation electronically to given reception point, which will improve the quality of the received signal and increase its reach”, Serrano explains. Another research line of CentrommW is the development of a technology based on copper nanowires to miniaturize devices with high performance in millimetric waves.

The conception and the development of the entire 5G technology are done in a collaborative way in public and private research centers since the beginning of the 2010’s, and will continue in the next years, with innovations that will have to be approved in the new 3GPP protocols. After the body defines the standards to be used in 5G, the equipment providers will use them to develop their products, which will be used by the telephone operators.

In Brazil, the Wireless Telecommunications Research Group (Gtel) of Universidade Federal do Ceará (UFC), maintained in partnership with Ericsson, has already presented four internationally patented technical contributions. One of them is a smart connection system with the antennas of the telecommunication operator. A moving user will switch antennas quickly, once their coverage area is relatively smaller in 5G systems. “Our solution uses artificial intelligence to predict the antenna the smartphone is headed to seconds before this happens. Thus, it is possible to prepare the 5G network to receive the new connection, reducing risks of interruption or drop of connection”, the electrical engineer Francisco Rodrigo Cavalcanti, Gtel coordinator, describes.

Another characteristic of the 5G technology is virtualization, i.e., transfer of several tasks traditionally done by physical infrastructure, the hardware, such as routers, decoders, signal synchronizers and load balancers, to software and cloud computing. “Virtualization enables simplifying ERBs, reducing their weight, size and electronics, with impact on the energy consumption”, the electronic engineer Rodrigo de Lamare, coordinator of the 5G laboratory of the Telecommunications Studies Center of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (Cetuc-PUC-RJ), affirms. Lamare works on the development of signal processing techniques and architecture of communication systems for data sharing and cloud computing centers of the operators.

Innovation in 5G is the network slicing. While in 4G all users receive equal signals, the network slicing enables the telecommunication operator to manage the connection characteristics, such as infrastructure availability, data transfer rate and latency, according to the demand of each user, not impairing anyone. A technical possibility in 5G is the interoperability of connections. Provided that there is an agreement between the telephone companies, the client of one operator can be served by the infrastructure of another, always having the best connection available at any time.

The interoperability and the network slicing must be managed for each connection of a device with each antenna. “The connection of an ambulance attending an emergency with the hospital will migrate from ERB and operator numberless times during the route, but there must be guarantee that this connection will always keep the priority status”, the electrical engineer Moacyr Martucci, from the Computing Engineering and Digital Systems Department of Poli-USP, exemplifies.

CPQD is one of the main developers and suppliers of Operation Support Systems (OSS) in the country, which is the set of software that enables automation of the service provision and administration of the telecommunication infrastructure, doing tasks, such as those of the network orchestrator, which determines the service request in each infrastructure, and the so-called core, which processes, controls the services and the interconnection with other operators, calculating the fare related to each one, as well.

Already in 2020, CPQD should start a project supported by the Telecommunications Technological Development Fund (Funttel), in an agreement of R$ 20.7 million distributed in three years, which includes the adaptation of its OSS systems to 5G. “The project covers the development of a complete 5G network, including an open access and virtualized network, 5G network core and an orchestration service and infrastructure system”, Gustavo Correa Lima, leader of the CPQD Wireless Communications Platform, says. “It will be an open innovation project, which will also explore the use of artificial intelligence in the network management and the blockchain technology for dynamic infrastructure sharing.”

Intrigue network
Choice of the new standard is a background of geopolitical dispute between the United States and China

The call for bid for the frequencies intended for 5G in Brazil is scheduled for publication in 2021 and will bring the most expected definition by the telecommunications market: veto or not by the Brazilian government of the participation of technology providers of Chinese origin, such as Huawei and ZTE. The General Telecommunications Law assigns the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel) as competent for the decision, but the president Jair Bolsonaro has already stated that the decision will be his.

Claiming concerns in relation to cyber security, Anatel has officially delegated the decision to the Institutional Security Office of the Presidency of the Republic. The telecommunications operators Vivo, Claro and TIM, potential competitors in the bid, have already publicly informed that they are against the veto to any technology provider. For them, the higher the number of qualified providers, the better. The power to bargain will be higher, and consequentially, the possibility to reduce the acquisition cost of the equipment.

For the electrical engineer Moacyr Martucci from Poli-USP and member of the Think Tank forum for Implementation of 5G in Brazil, there are no known studies of independent institutions to show a significant qualitative difference between technology providers, nor are there works to evidence cyber security risks associated with any provider. “The veto to providers will not be a technical, but a political decision”, he says.

The electrical engineer and computing scientist Paulo Lício de Geus, from the Computing Institute of Universidade Estadual de Campinas (IC-Unicamp) has a different opinion, he thinks there are indeed cyber security risks when contracting 5G. “The interference in the electronic equipment manufacturers by governments of great powers, not only from China, has been known for at least 15 years”, he says. For him, for technologically dependent countries, such as Brazil, the doubt is “which nation to be a hostage of: a democratic one, the actions of which are subject to public referendum, or one that does not owe such explanations”.

Brazil will choose the 5G standard after the president elections in the United States in November. Both democrats and republicans have already manifested against the adoption of Chinese technology for 5G in the United States, claiming cybernetic risks. Candidate to reelection, President Donald Trump uses the weight of diplomacy to influence allies, such as the Brazilian government, to veto the Chinese. The United Kingdom, Australia, Poland and Portugal are some of the countries that followed the North American decision to veto. The weight the democrat candidate Joe Biden, if elected, will give to the subject in his international relations is still a mystery.

The North Americans fear that the Chinese will control the global digital infrastructure. Therefore, they have already restricted Huawei and ZTE. They claim that the Asian country may install hidden technology layers in the 5G networks able to spy on all activities of the North American industrial and military complex and that of its allies. The government of China denies having that power and reinforces the independence of its companies.

1. High efficiency and low cost MnM devices for applications in millimetric waves systems from 30 to 110 GHz (
nº 12/15159-2); Young Researchers Modality; Responsible researcher Ariana Serrano (USP); Investment R$ 795,724.65.
2. EMU granted in process 
nº 12/15159-2: Vectorial Network Analyzer (VNA) up to 70 GHz (nº 16/23779-9); Multiuser Equipment Modality (EMU); Responsible researcher Ariana Serrano (USP); Investment R$ 469,808.18.