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Next Big Thing: Get rid of batteries and offer power on demand ‘over the air’ using excess 5G capacity?

By Shirish Nadkarni

The next generation of cellular mobile communications technology is here. 5G, which is speedily overtaking the 4G standard all over the world, offers an exponential improvement in functionality over 4G – it is 100 times faster and has 1,000 times more capacity.

The results will be mobile networks that offer far higher capacity and reliability, much lower latency and network slicing, reduced energy usage, and massive connectivity for devices. All these provide great opportunities for mobile operators and broadcasters to improve their revenue streams by leveraging the phenomenal power of 5G.

One of the most exciting and unconventional 5G monetisation projects emerged recently from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT). Researchers at GIT have uncovered an innovative way to tap into the over-capacity of 5G networks, turning them into ‘a wireless power grid’ for powering mobile and other IoT devices. 

The breakthrough leverages a Rotman lens-based rectifying antenna capable of millimetre-wave harvesting at 28 GHz. The innovation could help eliminate the world’s reliance on batteries for charging devices by providing an alternative using excess 5G capacity.

Operating just like an optical lens, the Rotman lens provides six fields of view simultaneously in a pattern shaped like a spider. Tuning the shape of the lens results in a structure with one angle of curvature on the beam-port side and another on the antenna side. This enables the structure to map a set of selected radiation directions to an associated set of beam-ports. The lens is then used as an intermediate component between the receiving antennas and the rectifiers for 5G energy harvesting.

This novel approach addresses the trade-off between rectenna angular coverage and turn-on sensitivity with a structure that merges unique radio frequency (RF) and direct current (DC) combination techniques, thereby enabling a system with both high gain and large beamwidth.

In demonstrations, Georgia Tech’s technology research team achieved a 21-fold increase in harvested power compared with a referenced counterpart, while maintaining identical angular coverage.

This robust system may open the door for new passive, long-range, mm-wave 5G-powered RFID for wearable and ubiquitous IoT applications. The researchers used in-house additive manufacturing to print the palm-sized mm-wave harvesters on a multitude of everyday flexible and rigid substrates. Providing 3D and inkjet printing options will make the system more affordable and accessible to a broad range of users, platforms, frequencies, and applications.

“The fact is 5G is going to be everywhere, especially in urban areas. You can replace millions, or tens of millions, of batteries of wireless sensors, especially for smart city and smart agricultural applications,” said Emmanouil (Manos) Tentzeris, a Ken Byers Professor in Flexible Electronics in GIT’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Tentzeris predicts that power as a service will be the next big application for the telecom industry, just as data overtook voice services as a major revenue producer.

The research team is most excited by the prospect of service providers embracing this technology to offer power on demand “over the air,” reducing or eliminating the need for batteries.

“I’ve been working on energy harvesting conventionally for at least six years, and for most of this time it didn’t seem like there was a key to make energy harvesting work in the real world, because of FCC limits on power emission and focalisation,” said Jimmy Hester, Senior Lab Advisor and the CTO & Co-founder of Atheraxon, a Georgia Tech spinoff developing 5G radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. 

“With the advent of 5G networks, this could actually work and we’ve demonstrated it. This is extremely exciting — we could get rid of batteries,” he stated.

Elsewhere, it has become increasingly clear that the future of IoT (Internet of Things) and enterprise digitisation is tied to 5G. As cellular technology sees increasing  deployment across the world, businesses are licking their lips at the potential revenue that the new capabilities will bring to the table.   

“IoT will be a massive digital transformation driver in organisations,” said Dhruv Sood, Data Network Expert with STL, a leading integrator of digital networks. “With 5G’s capabilities and support for current IoT technologies like NB-IoT and Cat-M1, it is disrupting data analytics, automation and mobility at many organisations. 

“Moreover, 5G gives businesses and 5G telecom operators the ideal opportunity to scale up in the Industry 4.0 era and realise new revenue streams – either through new services, use cases, customers, or market expansion. This is also facilitated by more and more populations embracing 5G – a number that will swell to 580 million global 5G connections worldwide by the end of 2021.”

Over the coming four years, companies will invest heavily – up to US$57 billion, according to Science Monitor – to build higher network density, add spectrum, and upgrade active equipment. As they do so, they will seek to avoid a repeat of the 4G rollout experience. 

Although 4G, launched in 2012, catalysed a revolution in the adoption of data services, operators struggled to generate additional revenues from end-users to cover the investments. Consumers continually expect to have more – more data, more connectivity, more functionality – while paying the same or less. 

This is one of the reasons that the total shareholder returns of the top 39 telecom companies have lagged that of wider stock indices over the past three years. And since telecom companies compete strongly on having the best networks, they face competitive pressure to make 5G investments, even if they try to do so in the most cost-effective way. 

To ensure they reap a fair return for their enormous investments in 5G, operators must think holistically about the monetisation opportunities, going beyond simply charging consumers more for faster data.

While 5G may present fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband opportunities in certain circumstances, it will be difficult to realise attractive returns on overall 5G investment. In fact, 5G offers not just higher speed but also other valuable – and monetisable – attributes.

There is a very good reason why enterprises are embracing 5G development and IoT at speed – to future-proof themselves. The advent of 5G has opened up avenues to create newer, futuristic business models and revenue streams: 

  • Digital transformation – 5G-induced seamless connectivity means enterprises can scale up their digital transformation and remain competitive. According to Gartner, 75% of OEMs will use their IoT products to sell new services or consumable offerings to customers by 2022.
  • Enhanced business performance – 5G and IoT mean better, smarter, cost-effective ways of doing work. This directly optimises performance, enhances productivity and weeds out any scope for inefficiency or on the floor.  
  • Sustainability – Smart technology means honouring one’s environmental responsibility with cleaner, more energy-efficient processes. 
  • Automation and smart data – 5G and IoT mean a higher degree of automation in products and processes. It also means sharper customer insights that help improve products and experiences at unprecedented speed.
  • Business flexibility – 5G and IoT empower businesses to scale up as efficiently as possible, while also being adaptable to emerging industry trends. 

On the back of these transformative changes, enterprise IoT revenues are set to almost triple in the next four years to US$906 billion, according to ‘strategy&’, part of the Price WaterhouseCoopers network.

For enterprises and 5G telecom operators, it is not just the hyper-speed or low latency of 5G that is paving the way for a new era of monetisation opportunities. It is also about 5G implementation that is veering towards open, virtualised architecture. Thanks to this deployment that rests upon industry-grade servers with a software virtualisation layer on top, telcos can offer tailored services to enterprises as per their specific requirements. 

Thus, enterprises can now enjoy the benefits of network slicing, enabling them to power individual IoT systems and new use cases, using different, virtual networks with QoS (Quality of Service) guarantees, enhanced security, data traffic prioritisation, etc. 

Another advantage of 5G in play is the proliferation of edge computing that is shifting exceptional processing power and analytics from the centralised cloud closer to the ‘edge’ of the network. This means that IoT devices and consumers that own them – including media businesses – can do so much more, thanks to near-zero latency and lag, significantly higher bandwidth, and much more seamless connectivity.

All of these put together make a great case for multiple-revenue opportunities in 5G-powered IoT and enterprise digitisation for operators, OEMs and other businesses.

Question: How are digital-savvy enterprises shaping up to capitalise on 5G development and IoT capabilities … and when can we reduce or eliminate the use of batteries?

To share your views, please send them to maven@editecintl.com.

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