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August 29, 2022

NEC Explores Beamforming from the Sky to Help Close the Digital Divide

NEC Explores Beamforming from the Sky to Help Close the Digital Divide

While use cases such as augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), robotic surgery, and industrial automation have received much of the initial attention around 5G, another use case may eventually be just as impactful: helping to close the “digital divide.”

Digital Divide Continues to Pose Challenges

The digital divide continues to represent significant issues of equality, separating more developed countries and regions from less developed ones, as well as exacerbating gaps between urban and rural regions in even the most prosperous countries.

Globally, the digital divide is profound –  according to the United Nations, nearly half of global households do not have an Internet connection. In the least developed countries, almost 80% of the households remain unconnected or under-connected. To a family in a remote village, having reliable connectivity could make all the difference in being able to have access to healthcare, education, and marketplaces. Even in prosperous markets such as the United States, significant swaths of territory remain underserved, an issue that was laid bare during the pandemic when rural schoolchildren often needed to drive to store parking lots and other more populous locations in order to gain access to online classes.

High Altitudes and 5G Beamforming Innovations Present Potential Connectivity Breakthrough

NEC has been working with several high-altitude platform station (HAPS) and telecommunications partners to study a novel approach to antenna placement that may help address the digital divide problem. By using airships or other high-altitude vehicles in the sky, outfitted with beamforming antennas, connectivity can be provided to remote areas where communications infrastructure is cost-prohibitive or impractical. For years, HAPS proponents have promoted the development of common product specifications, interoperability standards, and a supporting ecosystem around networks operating from the stratosphere, approximately twenty kilometers above the earth’s surface.

One of the key technology pillars of 5G, beamforming, is uniquely well-suited to supporting HAPS. Beamforming refers to the coordinated use of multiple antenna elements to focus radio frequency (RF) energy in targeted directions while suppressing RF energy in other unwanted directions. This bundle of focused RF energy is also called a beam – hence the name beamforming.

The initial use case for 5G beamforming typically involves densely populated urban areas, where different beams can be directed to different users to boost individual user throughputs as well as aggregate cell capacity. However, our research indicates that the beamforming technique is also an excellent tool to tackle the challenges of dynamically controlling, adjusting, and fine-tuning the RF energy radiation pattern of an active antenna aboard a moving high-altitude air vehicle. NEC’s investment in beamforming, most notably its recent purchase of Blue Danube Systems, offers several benefits in this case:

  1. Focusing RF energy into a beam enables an exceptionally long range of transmission (up to hundreds of kilometers according to our link budget analysis), avoiding the need for expensive terrestrial infrastructure to provide cost-effective connectivity.
  2. Blue Danube Systems has developed advanced artificial intelligence (AI) / machine learning (ML) techniques to optimize the beam patterns for the given geographic regions, minimizing RF interference with existing terrestrial networks and pinpointing beams toward remote towns and villages where no infrastructure-based cellular services exist.
  3. Blue Danube Systems has enabled a real-time control loop in which the beam steering angles can be optimized up to a thousand times per second in response to air vehicle flight path, altitude, wind turbulence or other perturbations to the beamforming antenna, thus ensuring the air vehicle is always using the most optimized beam patterns to serve its intended areas.

Thus far, we have found that use of HAPS-based beamforming antennas is a promising way to cost-efficiently provide connectivity to remote locations. We will continue our analysis and share our findings with our partners.

Conclusion: Universal Connectivity May Be Within Reach

As large-scale deployment of 5G accelerates over the next couple of years, undoubtedly, we will continue to see the bulk of industry attention focused on cutting-edge use cases that offer unprecedented throughput, ultra-low latency, and extraordinary reliability. However, for half of the world’s population, the most exciting use case of 5G may well be the presence of connectivity itself – affordable and universal connectivity for everyone.