By Shirish Nadkarni
As the world proceeds deeper into the 4th Industrial Revolution, solving the digital divide between rich and poor countries takes on an urgency of its own. Today, advanced countries have easy access to 5G technology and are building digital economies, smart cities, AI-automated factories and driverless transportation while school children in many Third World nations do not even have access to the Internet.
In April, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned the General Assembly that without decisive action by the international community, the digital divide will become “the New Face of Inequality”.
The on-going COVID-19 crisis has also deepened this disparity. Without internet access, millions of people around the globe are unable to benefit from remote education, remote work, or remote health services.
“Almost half the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and mostly in developing countries, are still offline,” the Deputy Secretary-General told ambassadors, tech experts and representatives from civil society groups.
To find practical solutions to bridge the divide, the UN will be organising a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), this November in Tunisia.
Indeed, to close the gap and uplift the lives and livelihoods of people in poorer nations, the UN must quickly find an affordable technical solution. One promising solution is combining 5G technology with advanced microwave transmission.
The key to bridge the digital divide is the rolling out of affordable access to 5G technology. While 5G via optic fibre is great, it is simply too expensive to deploy in Third World countries. However, an amazing innovation by Chinese tech major Huawei is helping nations in the Indian sub-continent to roll out 5G technology over rural and semi-urban landscape without breaking the bank.
Huawei recently launched its enhanced 5G Microwave Long-Reach E-band solution to scale up 5G deployment. The 5G microwave bearer technology efficiently transmits 4G and 5G services in mobile backhaul scenarios where fibre resources are unavailable.
The company provides solutions to smoothly upgrade bandwidths from 1 Gbps to 2 Gbps to 5 Gbps to 10 Gbps, enabling continuous evolution of microwave sites, and implementing unified cloudified management to satisfy backhaul requirements in the imminent 5G era. This helps operators maximise return on investments step by step.
It was at the 2020 Global Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF 2020) that Huawei officially unveiled its 5G Microwave Long-Reach E-band solution that combines an intelligent beam tracking (IBT) antenna with high-power E-band.
This combination increases the distance of E-band transmission from 3 km to 5 km while providing a 20 Gbps capacity and loosening the requirements of site deployment – which further accelerates the deployment of 5G.
E-band is a major solution of 5G’s microwave transmission. The band is in the range of 80 GHz radio frequencies and provides a high bandwidth – as high as 20 Gbps. High-frequency spectrum needs small beam angles, which require a higher tower stability to deploy larger-diameter antennas.
Due to this requirement, antennas with a 0.3 m diameter are mainly used to deploy the E-band in the industry. However, the transmission distance is too short to support scaled deployment of 5G.
The innovative IBT antenna is the industry’s first ever active microwave antenna. It leverages intelligent algorithms to maintain the stability of beams, thereby significantly reducing the requirements of E-band deployment on tower stability. This further breaks through the limits of setting up E-band antennas with a larger diameter, enabling deployment of both 0.6- and 0.9-metre E-band antennas.
In addition, this innovation allows the transmit power to increase by 6 dB for E-band signals. With these two improvements, the E-band transmission distance is increased by more than 50%, reaching 5 km, while providing a 20 Gbps capacity. This level of performance can fully meet the deployment requirements in urban areas.
At aggregation sites, the number of directions continuously increases, requiring network carriers to provide an increasing amount of spectrum resources. The company’s 5G Microwave SuperHUB solution can also improve the spectral efficiency by two to three times in multi-direction use cases.
The number of directions within a 360° range for multiplexing a single frequency is increased from 4 to 12 on the 6–42 GHz bands and 12 to 24 on E-band. Alongside improving spectral efficiency, this enables carriers to increase the density of deployment at reduced costs.
Perry Yang, president of Huawei’s microwave product line, is adamant that microwave backhaul is here to stay. Not only in supporting carriers’ evolution paths from 4G to 5G, but also on their longer term journey.
“Microwave backhaul is a safe investment because it can meet spiralling demand for more capacity and low-latency connections in places where it is economically not feasible to roll out fibre,” says Yang. “Many mobile operators don’t have sufficient fibre infrastructure, which is where the microwave comes in.”
Yang is far from being a lone industry voice. A recent report published by the GSMA – Wireless Backhaul Evolution: Delivering Next-generation Connectivity – anticipates that microwave backhaul, with around a 65% market share, will account for the majority of global backhaul links from 2021 to 2027.
Huawei’s expectation of continual improvements in microwave backhaul performance chimes with the report’s market-share projections. “We’re going to introduce lots of interesting new innovations to substantially increase bandwidth and transmission distances,” Yang promises.
Another 5G transport solutions provider, Ericsson, extols its “ubiquitous transport solutions”. As 5G is switched on, capacity needs in urban, suburban, and rural areas will soar, with service providers needing high-performing 5G transport solutions that are easy to build, scale, and service.
Ericsson’s transport solutions, reported to be based on Huawei’s proprietary technology, are designed to efficiently meet all needs, and connect 5G services everywhere while enabling superior RAN performance.
“Microwave backhaul has been taking significant technological leaps forward and has been ready to support 5G for some time,” says the Ericsson Mobility Report. “All its enhanced capabilities are now coming into play as 5G is switched on at an incredible pace – with subscriptions expected to reach 580 million by end-2021.
“In these unusual times, residential broadband connectivity is proving to be more important than ever. Yet, too many suffer from a lack of reliable service. There is a huge momentum for fixed wireless access (FWA) delivered over 4G or 5G networks as a cost-efficient broadband alternative.”
By the end of 2025, a quarter of all the world’s mobile network data traffic is forecast to be FWA. Microwave backhaul is an essential part of these deployments in suburban and rural areas.”
Huawei’s founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei, is equally gung-ho about the power of microwave backhaul. “Huawei’s 5G microwave will continue to make breakthroughs in increasing transmission distance, spectral efficiency, and site deployment to facilitate the deployment of 5G,” he says.
“We will also continue to provide ultra-broadband, simplified, and easy-to-deploy 5G microwave transport solutions to accelerate the construction of 5G networks worldwide at a very affordable cost.”
Question: Can Huawei’s move to combine IBT antenna with high-powered E-band really enable its 5G Microwave solution to bridge or narrow the digital divide?
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