Charge card will not work. No internet connection found. Phone calls cut in and out. All possible situations in Finland’s remotest areas. where the mobile network is weaker and or there is none at all, as in the case in Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Brazil.
This in its simplicity is the premise for two research projects in which the Centre for Wireless Communications is a participant. The aim is to extend the 5G network to remote areas and make it possible for residents in these areas to be on the same footing as people who live in the midst of digital society. Research is being carried out in Brazil, which is the CWC’s long-time partner, as well as in the Arctic areas.
University researcher Marja Matinmikko-Blue has taken part in establishing the Brazil project, while university researcher Harri Saarnisaari is heading CWC’s work in the Artic areas project. The unit's task in both projects is to develop data transfer solutions and operating models for the implementation of the 5G network.
“In the case of the Arctic project, we have considered the network’s architecture, in other words what elements the network could be composed of: a local base station must be able to connect with a mobile operator’s network, and possible elements involved in this are ground and sea cables, radio links, HF connections and satellites. We are also looking into when these solutions could be made available and a network could be built,” Saarnisaari says.
The development of operating models in Brazil will centre greatly on rural micro-operators, in other words local network operators that can be, for example, village-specific (and are also a feasible option in the Arctic areas). Protecting the users of current, legal frequency bands from experiencing interruptions will prove to be a challenge. Additional challenges will be brought about by e.g. illegal television broadcasts that can try to hijack reserved frequencies.
“Other use cannot be blocked, but we will develop a sensor technology that will help in observing the use of the frequency in question and to go where there is room,” Matinmikko-Blue explains.
5G is difficult to build but more technically functional
Although the regions in which research is being carried out differ from one another in numerous ways, the starting point is universal.
“The development of 5G will centre primarily in cities. Large operators will not necessarily be interested in building networks in remote areas, and it seems unlikely that new 5G frequency band decisions will include coverage obligations,” Matinmikko-Blue states. “In Brazil, there are surprisingly expansive areas with no internet connection at all,”
Saarnisaari’s description of the situation in the Artic areas is similar. “Telephone services are sometimes completely reliant on a satellite and are not available 24/7. Schools in Alaska and Siberia lack internet connections. From a distance, it would seem that all of Finland receives coverage, but at some point outside of urban areas the quality of connections begins to falter.
At a basic level, a network in remote areas means that a telephone service is secured. The development of internet connections in turn would make remote study and remote health care possible and improve the business potential of local businesses such as tourism companies.
However, as of yet, 5G does not exist anywhere. Its first official standard was created only in summer 2018. Additionally, 5G functions on a higher frequency than previous Gs (the mobile network’s development stages), which is why base stations must be situated closer to one another and the coverage of large areas is difficult. Why can’t we take something simpler to remote regions?
5G involves technical solutions that will improve the functionality of the network. The 5G network’s slicing feature makes it possible for important web services to bypass others. If the band for a remote village’s network were only 10 megabytes a second, slicing would allow the local operator to give, for example, healthcare services higher priority and they could therefore bypass entertainment use.
Micro-operators come with additional legislative challenges
In a similar way, caching, the process of storing data used locally in a storage computer connected to the base station, is a useful feature. For example, when you do not need to search for a TV programme again and again this saves capacity for more important use.
The 5G’s most essential new feature is the Internet of Things (IoT) where devices and sensors are connected to the network and can function “intelligently. This could also benefit remote areas. In Brazil, where agriculture is the primary livelihood, it could allow for the automation of irrigation systems and farming machines.
“In Arctic areas monitoring is very important. The IoT will make it possible for sensors that could maintain a connection with the village’s base station to be placed in the environment,” Saarnisaari explains.
Yes, the base stations. Large operators are unlikely to be keen on extending their services to sparsely populated areas, and, for this reason, the 5G network may require local micro-operators and their base stations. Setting these up for the 5G network would be easier than previously: in the past base stations were predominantly devices with fixed software, whereas the 5G network is based on installed software.
“5G software will likely be available for purchase at some point. After this, pretty much anyone will be able to establish their own network, as long as they have the necessary software, devices and frequency permit,” Saarnisaari describes.
The arrival of micro-operators will require new provisions, and, thus, the related challenges will not only be technical but also legislative. The Brazil project, which was launched just under a year ago, still has a ways to go before it reaches the finish line. The roadmap for the Artic areas project, which contains timetable estimates and architectural descriptions will be completed in autumn 2018. The Arctic Council forwards research results to the governments of Finland, Sweden and Norway, who will then be responsible for implementation.
Researchers are already looking into the next phase of wireless data transfer: last spring, a 6G study headed by the University of Oulu was selected as the Academy of Finland’s flagship project.
“We must see to it that remote areas are involved in 6G from its very start,” says Matinmikko-Blue.
Text: Jarno Mällinen
Photo: Luciano Mendes
Last updated: 29.10.2018