Brazil’s National Telecommunications Institute (Inatel), a research and education center in the field of engineering, put the finishing touches on an innovative radio communication apparatus back in April. LTE Network-in-a-Box is capable of supporting private wireless networks in remote areas, using the Long Term Evolution (LTE) communication standard, better known as 4G.
These wireless networks allow for the transmission of data and voice, facilitating the connection of machinery and equipment and the digital transformation of various areas of business, such as agricultural production, sugar and ethanol plants, miners, energy concessionaires, and oil and gas infrastructure companies. Even public security forces deployed in regions that do not receive service from telecom operators may benefit from the innovation.
LTE Network-in-a-Box was created in three different versions, to operate on the 250 megahertz (MHz), 700 MHz, and 1,800 MHz frequencies. The lower the frequency, the higher the signal reaches; in ideal conditions, a 250 MHz transmission may reach up to 100 kilometers, while one on the 1,800 MHz frequency can reach 5 km. According to Henry Rodrigues, technology and innovation coordinator of Inatel's Radio Communications Reference Center (CCR), the 250 MHz version is the most developed. It is currently in the final stages of validation tests and a contract has been signed with an undisclosed partner to manufacture and sell the product.
Mr. Rodrigues believes this 250 MHz version will attract the most attention from the market due to Brazil's telecoms regulations, which allow companies to operate on this frequency by way of a Limited Private Service license from the Brazilian Telecoms Agency (Anatel). In order to work with the other spectrum bands, public tenders are necessary. Bidding processes for the entire 4G spectrum began in 2012 and were awarded to mobile phone operators, which use equipment from multinational firms Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei.
A private LTE network can work as a closed circuit — like an intranet — or it may have an entry point for an signal obtained via satellite, cable, or point-to-point radio linkups. Inatel's technology manages to bring together the two functionalities of an LTE network in a single box. The first is as a base station, which is the fixed access network used to capture and retransmit the signal of connected devices. The other use is as an integrated network core, which controls base stations. "With most equipment available on the international market, these two functionalities work separately", explains Mr. Rodrigues. "In our solution, the network core functions are carried out by software embedded in the base station."
Another characteristic of LTE Network-in-a-Box, according to the CCR coordinator, is the ease with which it can handle the constant updating of technology. "In the future, users of LTE Network-in-a-Box that want to migrate to 5G will just have to update the software. They won't need to swap out the equipment", Mr. Rodrigues affirms.
The pioneers of the CPqD
Equipment for LTE networks to serve remote areas have also arisen as an innovation on the international market and must be developed in accordance with the frequencies available in each country. In most Latin American countries, the 450 MHz frequency is used in these far-flung areas. This particular band was also initially selected by Anatel and was set to be bundled into 4G auctions, though courts dismissed this requirement when companies showed no interest in the tender. The alternative was to use the 250 MHz frequency, regulated by Anatel for private networks by way of Limited Private Service licenses.
The first equipment for rural LTE networks in Brazil was designed for the 450 MHz frequency by from the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD) in Campinas in 2012, before being transferred to its commercial partner Trópico Telecomunicações.
According to Armando Barbiero, Trópico's product marketing manager, a second 700 MHz version — with a reach of between 10 and 15 km — was developed to fulfil a request from the Brazilian Army. It was used in an exclusive defense and public security network to monitor events in Brasília related to the 2014 Olympic Games. A third version, in 250 MHz, allowed the São Martinho sugar and ethanol factory to connect 2,000 agricultural vehicles in its productive facilities in the state of São Paulo. "We already have contracts with another four agribusiness clients and one in the area of railway logistics". says Mr. Barbiero.
Paulo Bernardocki, head of products and technology at Swedish telecoms firm Ericsson, says that after focusing on the smartphones market, telecoms operators are now increasing their commercial efforts to meet the demand of private LTE networks, offering the frequencies they obtained in bidding processes. One example of this is the agreement for telephone operator Vivo to implement LTE networks at all facilities belonging to Brazilian mining giant Vale. Beginning with the Carajás mine in the northern state of Pará, the move allows for the remote operation of trucks and drilling rigs. The existing network in Carajás was implemented by Finnish company Nokia. "The advantage of telecom companies is that they have expertise in the construction and operation of 4G networks, and a vast team to quickly solve problems that may arise", the executive says.
According to Mr. Bernardocki, the interest in private LTE networks is justified in a country that is so expansive and has many areas without adequate telecoms coverage. However, the migration to 5G is inevitable. "The transmission speed is 100 times faster, and the latency — the response time for a given demand — is five milliseconds, one-tenth [of the time required] for 4G", the executive explains. These characteristics are set to open up the possibility of new technological architectures. "We're going to have drones with cameras flying over plantations, processing the image in the cloud, identifying diseases, using artificial intelligence and spraying [pesticides] in a single flight, before going back to base", Mr. Bernardocki forecasts.
This article was originally published by Revista Pesquisa Fapesp