A front-runner in wireless broadband, Ericsson is busy developing the fifth generation of wireless technologies, or 5G. The company should finalize the prototype of 5G network at a global level this year, in which endeavors the Hungarian talent pool has played its fair share.
It will not be before 2020 when the rollout of 5G happens, yet global network developers are already working hard to meet the deadline. Ericsson, a key player in the field, will finish the research prototype of an entire 5G network by the end of this year which, with limitations, is supposed to operate as the real thing. The global team responsible for the development is coordinated by a Hungarian 5G expert Zoltán Turányi, along with whom many Hungarians from Ericsson’s R&D center in Budapest work on 5G and other new technologies. (Expert is the second of the three grades on Ericsson’s technology career path. There are only a few hundred expert-level professionals at Ericsson worldwide, and five in Hungary.)
“5G radio itself is a huge innovation”, said Turányi, when asked about innovations the company is currently working on. He also cites beam forming, a breakthrough technology in radio that enables 5G communication to happen faster.
The requirement for a transition from 4G to 5G comes mostly from industrial demand. Yet pressure is mounting for better wireless infrastructure from general users as well. For traditional browsing, video streaming, music downloads etc., the current 4G network speeds are sufficient. But this could quickly change if the number of users continues growing. Speed is relative anyway; the rates expressed in megabit per second (Mps) that the service providers publish on their web pages are often theoretical maximum speeds, measured in lab conditions. In real life, they are hard to achieve due to interference from a number of sources, and also because speeds slow down as more devices compete for LTE resources. It also depends on how active connected users are at a certain moment, how far away they are from cells, even weather conditions can interfere with speed. Mobile operators respond by installing more antennas (or cells) to improve coverage, but during peak usage, this could still prove to be not enough.
Beam forming can be one tool to address this issue. By placing a high number of antenna elements on an (existing) antenna, one can direct the radio beam towards one direction, much like the beam of a torch, while ‘muting’ disturbing elements, Turányi explained. All this can be achieved without physically moving the antenna which, unlike traditional TV satellites, does not comprise mechanic components. Using this technology, the antenna can send beams into several directions at the same time and the cells’ full capacity may available for each user. The innovation is too big to tie exclusively to Ericsson, Turányi said, but the company is at the forefront of developing it.
He also talks about what they have achieved in the development of 5G. “We have managed to create a small version of 5G – smaller meaning a stripped-down system which lacks many functions needed for operation,” Turányi said. It is in pre-production phase, and is still some way from becoming a fully-fledged product at this stage. So far, the various generations of networks have usually had a ten-year timespan. The standardization process of 4G finished in 2008, the product was launched in 2010, and so we are still within that time frame, Turányi says.
That said, things will be different this time. With digitalization, the amount of data to be analyzed and computed has grown enormously. What distinguishes 5G from former generations is its ability to communicate and compute. It is an integrated system which also involves the use of clouds, Turányi notes. Controlling a robot remotely, augmented reality in the form of a tourist app that displays information on sights, bars, museums as users hold up and/or slide their phones in front of buildings, or reading a QR code on a washing machine that provides repair information, are just some examples of 5G’s potential use. All of these require video/data sending, analysis and response so fast that current 4G networks simply could not cope. On the other end, there is the demand for less intelligent, basic devices to communicate.
“With the creation of NarrowBand IoT [Internet of Things], the aim was to scale down the chip in LTE terminals and LTE-capable phones to cost roughly as much as a Bluetooth chip. The bandwidth is reduced to 0.2Mhz bandwidth which is ‘noisier’ (that is, more interference is experienced) but it is not an issue as it is not designed for continuous conversation anyway,” Turányi said. Rather, NB-IoT is designed to provide sustainable technology for connecting billions of devices. Contrary to critical mission focused development, this is an example of massive use of simple things, like a key holder that can be beeped from a distance making it easier for its owner to locate it. The specification for NB-IoT includes a number of design targets: device cost under USD 5 per module; a coverage area that is seven times greater than existing technologies; device battery life that is longer than 10 years with sustained reachability; and meets a capacity density of 40 devices per household. NB-IoT was not developed by Ericsson, but the company was among the most active using/applying it.
The number of new technologies may further increase when Ericsson Hungary, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the country, moves to its new center in Budapest. The company recently laid the foundation of its future Budapest headquarters, where its existing national sites, including its R&D lab and incubation center, will be moved upon completion. This will become one of the biggest R&D centers of Ericsson in Europe, in accordance with the strategic agreement with the government. The Ericsson House, set to be finished by 2017, will be the first building of the Magyar Nobel-díjasok K+F Park (Hungarian Nobel Laureates’ R&D Park) where the buildings will be designed to reflect the specific demands of companies working in R&D. “The new design will boost creativity and closer cooperation between research and development and sales, which may contribute to more breakthrough technologies,” Gábor Éry, the President of Ericsson Hungary said at the ceremony.
“The Hungarian research base contributes substantially to Ericsson’s global portfolio,” Roland Jakab, managing director of Ericsson Hungary, told the Budapest Business Journal. The three main topics they are actively involved in are 5G, cloud, and analytics, which are also the most current topics in technology today. The company is in close cooperation with universities, including the Technology University in Budapest (BME) and Eötvös Loránd University, also known as ELTE. The firm operates a high-speed lab and a complex hardware design lab at BME, and a software technology lab and a communications network lab at ELTE. These labs produce a high number of theses, diplomas and scientific studies.
Some ideas even get to become a product at the firm’s incubator: Ericsson Garage. After Stockholm, Budapest was only the second city to host such an incubator. One recent example of cooperation between Ericsson Garage and Universities is SmartActive Squash. Engineers and researchers from Ericsson and universities together with students took a squash wall and made it smarter with the aim of being able to analyze the game to the extremes. The system gives instant feedback on everything from the strength of the drive to the angle the ball hits the wall to what stance the player took – all helping improve the game and make training interactive. The team created an IoT wall equipped with sensors and attached it to a cloud-based analytical tool. The product is already used in a Budapest-based sport center. Yet the major benefit for Ericsson, according to Jakab, does not necessarily come from the sales of the product, but its potential adaptability to other industries.