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Mobile Communications August 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Drones for Mobile Communications

Why is this topic significant?

In remote areas, flying platforms might supply backhaul for fixed cell sites or even support mobile communications directly.

Description

During July 2016, Facebook flight-tested a solar-powered drone having a wingspan of more than 100 feet but weighing less than 1,000 pounds. Engineers designed the unusual vehicle, dubbed Aquila, to eventually fly at altitudes of 60,000 to 90,000 feet. Related research at Facebook aims to develop laser-based air-to-air communications at data rates of "tens of Gbps." The company has expressed a goal of providing connectivity within a radius of 50 km around the drone. Reports indicate that the company intends the drones to connect to fixed Wi-Fi access points, public hot spots, and cellular base stations.

A July 2016 announcement indicates that AT&T is considering various applications of drones including flying 4G base stations for large, temporary events. The company also sees flying base stations as potentially useful for rapid deployment in response to disasters and during search-and-rescue operations. Because cellular services already make some use of cell-on-wheels vehicles (COWs), the company used the term "flying COWs" (which can also refer to cell-on-wings) to describe its drone concept.

Google has been testing drones that carry microwave and millimeter-wave radios and directional phased-array antennas. According to a January 2016 report in The Guardian, some of the drones operate on solar power and can fly at high altitudes. Regulatory filings by Google and responses from the US government indicate that Google has permission to conduct tests at up to 25,000 feet at locations in California, New Mexico, and Oregon, using various radios that operate at frequencies of up to 84 GHz. Such radio signals have a wavelength as little as 3.6 mm and are therefore compatible with tiny smart antennas that promise to complement lightweight flying platforms. Similar millimeter-wave radios find use in 5G research, and also in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Mobile Hotspots research program, which aims to produce drone-mounted 1 Gbit/s communications systems.

Implications

The world record for unfueled drone endurance is about two weeks, achieved by Airbus in 2010. Facebook seems poised to smash that record. The company plans to prepare Aquila for missions that are three months in duration. Extended unfueled operation is critical to achieving the "new cost paradigms" that Facebook acknowledges are a requirement for large-scale use of drones for communications. Long-duration unfueled drone flight could also require new general-aviation paradigms: Engineers face challenges to maneuver civil aircraft in thin air at 60,000 to 90,000 feet.

Impacts/Disruptions

Service providers face many challenges to commercialize drones for communications purposes. Even if market development proceeds in an ideal fashion, early roles for airborne platforms will likely be limited to networks in very remote places and in conflict zones. Champions of the technology have expressed the idea that drone-to-drone communications could substitute for transoceanic and transcontinental fiber connections, and that (if safety can be assured) the drones might even offer competitive broadband and mobile services to populated areas.

For communications services, access networks are not the only applications for drones. At a recent event, AT&T demonstrated use of drones for inspecting cell towers. The company is also researching ways to connect drones that are communications clients, not base stations, to enable real-time data collection in "insurance, farming, facility and asset inspections, and ...delivery service(s)." Commoditization of mobile communications services could drive carriers toward developing specialized offerings for use of drones in vertical industries and niche markets.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular-network services, fixed wireless services, sensor networks, network equipment manufacturing, managed base-station operation services, government systems

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

New Roles for Wi-Fi

Why is this topic significant?

Wi-Fi continues to evolve. Technology and service road maps for Wi-Fi promise to enable an ongoing stream of new benefits.

Description

During June 2016, the Wi-Fi Alliance started certifying IEEE 802.11ac Wave 2 phones, routers, chips, and development kits. The hardware supports data rates that exceed 2 Gbit/s. Existing Wi-Fi equipment is compatible. But users will need new hardware to take advantage of the increased data rate, which is double the data rate available with equipment that is certified for 802.11ac Wave 1 specifications (such equipment first became available in 2013).

Since January 2016, a partnership has been converting New York City pay-phone locations into free Wi-Fi hot spots and kiosks. As of July, hundreds of locations are in service, with several thousand more locations slated for conversion. Alphabet and Qualcomm are among the partners and investors in the city's franchisee, CityBridge. Advertising appears on electronic signs that decorate the kiosks. The franchisee expects that ad revenue will pay for continuing operations of the free Wi-Fi service.

During March 2016, Google made its by-invitation-only Project Fi cellular offering available to all users who have US billing addresses. The service can be considerably less expensive than alternatives because it makes aggressive use of Wi-Fi, at no charge, for calling and handover. For example, Google routes Wi-Fi calls to US phone numbers for free. Republic Wireless has offered a somewhat similar "Wi-Fi first" service since 2011, with connectivity available in the United States only. Project Fi allows international data roaming in more than 100 countries for the same prices it charges for domestic use. During recent months, Project Fi greatly increased its coverage in rural areas of the United States when it added US Cellular to its list of infrastructure partners, and increased its international footprint by adding CW Hutchison's Three to its list of partners.

Implications

In homes and many small to medium-size businesses, the latest Wi-Fi technologies may confer little or no benefit, considering that limits to data rates are often governed by fixed broadband services, not by Wi-Fi. Use cases for Wi-Fi Wave 2 routers, phones, tablets, and other gear include many medium to large businesses that are equipped with fiber-optic broadband connections. In such cases, work groups and meetings can have dozens of participants. Some public venues—including hotels, transportation hubs, and sports arenas—may also need to support many users concurrently and therefore can benefit from a combination of high-performance Wi-Fi and fiber-optic broadband connections.

Impacts/Disruptions

Wi-Fi standards will continue to evolve, leveraging next-generation wireless technologies. Those technologies promise to further increase data rates and add support for Internet-of-Things applications, cognitive radio technologies, and standards-based resource-discovery protocols. Wi-Fi researchers are also investigating multiuser millimeter-wave communications that make use of directed "pencil beams" (one user's wireless connection does not interfere with that of another user).

A loyal user base could develop if New York City's franchisee, CityBridge, can deliver widely available, free, advertiser-sponsored Wi-Fi and avoid pitfalls related to vandalism and cybersecurity. Other cities might emulate the municipal-franchise business model that incentivizes CityBridge's hot-spot and smart-sign deployment.

If successful, Project Fi could lead Google to establish itself as an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) in nations other than the United States, and it could inspire competitive responses. Google's brand-name infrastructure partners and their rivals alike might need to change policies to make more use of pervasive Wi-Fi.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturers, network-equipment manufacturers, cellular services, hotspot services, enterprises, municipalities, advertisers

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: