A compact wireless communication expert competing on the world stage
"My mission is to continue promoting the convenience and joy of connected life to the world."
Mobile networks are now an essential part of our everyday lives. NEC's microwave radio communication systems are now used in communications infrastructure around the world. Eisaku Sasaki is an engineer tackling the task of further enhancing these systems. Here he discusses NEC's strengths at the forefront of global business, as well as how his business unit came back from the brink of obsolescence. He also touches upon how wireless communications contribute to society.
Technology supporting mobile communication networks worldwide
--First of all, tell us about NEC's PASOLINK communications systems.
Sasaki: "PASOLINK" is a collective term for NEC's microwave radio communication systems. PASOLINK carries out wireless communication using microwaves in the 1 to 10 cm wavelength. The system is comprised of an outdoor unit(transmitter-receiver) installed on towers, and an indoor unit(modem).
Microwave radio communication systems are currently only used for a few specific applications in Japan, such as dedicated lines for local municipalities or power companies, so I doubt many people know of them.
However, these microwave radio communication systems actually played an integral role in the development of communications and broadcasting in Japan. One example of this is telephones. When landline adoption exploded in Japan in the 1950s, NEC provided microwave transmission equipment to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation, which is now known as NTT. Microwave radio communication systems made a significant contribution to enabling the phone network to reach every nook and cranny of Japan, including remote islands.
Another example is television broadcasts. Back in the day, this communication system played a large role in making it possible for families all over the country to watch the same TV programs as those shown in Tokyo.
PASOLINK antenna and outdoor unit (left), indoor unit (right)
--What are the advantages of NEC's PASOLINK?
Sasaki: PASOLINK has three main advantages. The first is its small size and light weight. NEC utilized its past experience to develop an outdoor unit with a length and width of just 13 cm, making it the smallest and lightest in the world*. This compact size and light weight makes it extremely easy to transport and install, even in mountainous or desert regions. There are also issues with finding towers strong enough for installation in some countries, and a small, light outdoor unit helps alleviate this problem.
The second advantage is low power consumption. Through in-house development of a low-voltage device that consumes little power even with higher volumes of signal processing, we were able to provide an environmentally friendly solution that also benefits customers who utilize it through lower running costs.
The third and final advantage is robustness and high reliability. PASOLINK was created based on our proven track record with backbone communication systems such as telephones and televisions, which require a high resistance to faults. It achieves stable operation even in the most extreme environmental conditions found overseas. The reliability of PASOLINK is second to none, with a failure rate of just one in a hundred years, if that.
- *According to NEC data
--Where and how is PASOLINK currently being used?
Sasaki: NEC's PASOLINK is now being utilized in mobile communications infrastructure across the globe. PASOLINK transmits data from people's mobile phones and smart devices that is accumulated at mobile base stations to upstream base stations, and also links these upstream base stations together. We've already shipped a total of 2.2 million units to more than 150 countries around the world, covering regions as diverse as Asia, Europe, and South America.
PASOLINK operates stably in temperatures ranging from -30 to 55 degrees celsius, meaning it is able to withstand even the harshest natural environments.
Japan's mobile communications infrastructure is currently centered around optical fiber, but with growing demand for solutions to cope with natural calamities, compact microwave radio systems are once again attracting attention in Japan as emergency networks for when disaster strikes.
- *As of the end of June 2014
Delivering Japanese quality from Fukushima to the world
--What is NEC's greatest strength in the area of microwave radio communication systems?
Sasaki: I'd have to say the fact NEC is able to carry out the entire process itself, including development of the LSIs for digital signal processing, design of high frequency RF circuits, development of transmission devices, and product manufacturing.
Because frequency bands differ depending on the country and provider, and the output and transmission capacity required vary based on the place of installation, each PASOLINK equipment is shipped with different specifications. That means there are a wide range of equipment combinations, which is further fragmented when you take the number of languages supported into account.
Product manufacturing is currently handled by the skilled staff at our Fukushima factory, where we have achieved a lead time of just two to four week from order to delivery. You could say that Fukushima prefecture in Japan is helping to expand mobile communication networks around the world. Japanese quality is leading the world in this area.
--What other strengths does NEC have?
Sasaki: One other thing that comes to mind is our global sales ability. NEC divides the world into six areas, and we are building a local presence in each of these to actively promote sales. We are also collaborating with local vendors in each area to reinforce sales further.
On top of that, NEC has an extensive product lineup that supports a variety of frequency bands and transmission capacities, so we can provide the optimal systems to meet the needs of a range of countries with different environments and conditions.
NEC is establishing a strong position as one of the top international vendors in the market for microwave radio communication systems. Competition with rival vendors for market share is extremely fierce, but we are striving on a daily basis to develop high quality products that will satisfy our customers.
From the brink of obsolescence to a dramatic revival
--How did NEC's microwave communications business develop?
Sasaki: NEC apparently began developing microwave-based systems in the 1930s. That's a little over 80 years ago now. In the early '50s we achieved substantial growth with the development and production of microwave transmission devices for backbone systems related to telephones and television.
In 1969, we were the first in the world to commercialize a digital microwave communication system. We continued to develop the technology after that, and in the 1980s a digital microwave communication network was established throughout Japan. However, after optical fiber was rolled out across the whole of Japan from around the mid-90s, the market for microwave systems quickly dried up.
We lost the domestic market, which was a significant source of revenue for us, and this brought us face-to-face with a major crisis. As a result we looked into a range of alternatives, including areas such as CATV and video on demand systems.
--How did you make such an impressive comeback after facing this crisis?
Sasaki: It will be difficult to use microwave radio communication systems for backbone communications infrastructure going forward. So what we decided to do was concentrate on the infrastructure device market for overseas mobile phone networks, which has seen rapid growth since the late 1990s.
Microwave radio communication systems aren't affected by mountain or island terrain. They are also resilient against natural disasters, including floods and earthquakes. Because only a few buildings are needed, it is easy to protect against things like terrorism. The ultimate appeal of them, though, is that they are easy to build. That means the money and time required for system construction is a lot lower than optical fiber, which must first be laid.
Another underlying factor is the difficulty of laying optical fiber to cover the vast landmasses found overseas. The realization that there may be places overseas where the strengths of microwave radio communication systems can still be applied altered the course of our business.
However, we did have one challenge to overcome. Namely, the price of our systems. No matter now high-powered and reliable the system, it would not sell in the overseas market if the price was too high. That motivated our engineers to do everything they could to reduce costs.
We applied a range of technology and ingenuity to reduce costs without sacrificing quality or reliability, such as increasing circuit integration and reducing the number of parts through LSI development. In the end, we achieved world-class cost performance.