Will Google Succeed Where Motorola Failed?
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Will Google Succeed Where Motorola Failed?

Apr. 20, 2016  |   Blog   |  0 comments

In late January The Guardian obtained documents under the public records law that showed that Google is experimenting with millimetre wave radio transmissions, a new sky-based technology, to provide 5G wireless internet service. The news immediately captured the attention of technophiles around the world. Many technology geeks are imagining a day when thousands of high-altitude self-flying drones will provide seamless internet access to everyone, akin to what GPS satellites are doing with our cars today.

It is reported that Google is running trials with solar-powered drones at New Mexico’s Spaceport America. The technology — codenamed SkyBender — uses high-frequency millimeter-wave technology to deliver high-speed internet running at over 10 Gbps (Gigabits per second) from the sky. This transmission speed is akin to the transmission speed of the currently developing 5G cellular based architecture. The cellular based architecture will see its industry standard set in 2018 and commercial operations expected in the 2020s.

With billions of potential connections in the future high-speed 5G domain, transmission speed and spectrum utilization will be the key defining performance parameters of any 5G technology. High-frequency millimeter-waves can theoretically transmit gigabits of data every second and promise access to a new spectrum that avoids the existing overcrowded spectrum. The Google system runs at 28 GHz, much higher than the current 2600 MHz of the 4G system and apparently fits the criteria of the upcoming 5G. 

However, millimeter-wave transmissions have a much shorter range than mobile phone signals. At 28 GHz, signals will fade out in around a tenth the distance of a 4G phone signal. To get the millimeter-wave signals working from a high-flying drone, Google must experiment with focused transmissions from a so-called phased array technology which is very complex and power intensive. Also, aerial technology is more sensitive to the surrounding environment than the ground based cellular network, and whether the Google project can ever match the proposed 5G network which is evolving from the currently robust 4G network in reliability is really questionable.

The current attempt by Google to develop aerial based communications is a very laudable effort. Though it might not be commercially viable on a broad scale, it can provide quick access to the internet to many remote communities. In fact, Google is not the first organization to work with drones and millimeter-wave technology. In 2014, the research arm of the US military, DARPA, announced a program called Mobile Hotspots to make a fleet of drones that can provide one gigabit per second communications for troops operating in remote areas. 

The effort of Google is in some way reminiscent of that of another technology giant three decades ago. Instead of focusing on the then budding 2G GSM or CDMA cellular technology, Motorola spent a lot of resources working on its Iridium satellite phone. Although Motorola did succeed at the end with Iridium and placed 66 satellites around the world to provide full range satellite phone service, it was not able to overcome the cost and power requirement issues. Motorola was forced to spin off the operation after massive losses and was the first company in the wireless phone industry to subsequently get out of the wireless business. Let us hope Google will have a better technology breakthrough this time than Motorola.

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