'European industry faces something of a chicken and egg situation in the wireless and mobile communications sector,' argues Marco Luise, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Pisa in Italy. 'Companies have put a lot of time, money and effort into developing applications and technologies that can quickly be brought to market and they have benefited from this. But their focus on the short-term has come at the expense of fundamental research for the long term: the result is a slow decline in product innovation.'
Less innovative products and technologies - from smart phones and other mobile devices to wireless protocols and data transmission systems - puts Europe at risk of losing its competitive advantage in the field amid the rise of competing products and technologies, particularly from Asia.
'It's an endless slope that is very hard to get off of once you're on it,' Prof. Luise explains.
But now European researchers have stepped in to stop the slide. For more than three years, 18 universities and research institutes in 14 countries have cooperated on fundamental research as part of the 'Network of excellence in wireless communications' ( Newcom++).
Breakthrough technologies for beyond 4G
Among many technological breakthroughs to emerge from the network of excellence is a new class of channel codes for the reliable transmission of data over wireless networks. So-called Polar Codes, they hold the promise of a large increase in bandwidth, allowing mobile devices to dramatically increase the speed of data transmission, and are the first capacity-achieving codes to be successfully decoded. Developed by Erdal Arikan of Bilkent University in Turkey, one of the Newcom++ partners, the work was recognised with a Best Paper Award from the Information Theory Society.
'Bandwidth is a key issue: if you have a wireless one megabit (Mb) internet connection today you will want a 10Mb connection tomorrow and a 100Mb connection the day after that,' Prof. Luise explains. 'Therefore technologies that can do more with the bandwidth and channels available are very important.'
The project partners worked on a range of technologies that go far beyond the current state of the art in mobile and wireless communications. For example, Newcom++ researchers at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, worked on advanced decoding algorithms for multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) technology in which both the transmitting and receiving devices have multiple antennas to improve communications.
New 4G LTE smart phones already make use of MIMO technology, but the Newcom++ researchers developed techniques to further improve the performance of multiple-antenna systems at low cost. Other work focused on so-called cooperative communication, which allows a MIMO mobile device to cooperate with other mobile devices in the vicinity to connect to a base station - a multiple-hop approach that not only extends the area of coverage but also increases transmission speed.
A large-scale collaborative research initiative supported by almost EUR 5 million in funding from the European Commission, Newcom++ continues the work of a predecessor project, Newcom, which helped plant the roots for widespread collaboration among European researchers in wireless and mobile communications.
The project team also helped train young researchers in the field, set up an online collaboration platform and database to share knowledge, and produced a series of books and publications that analyse in depth future needs, challenges and solutions. Over the coming years, the results of their work promise to play a key role in everything from providing cheaper, faster and more secure wireless internet access to expanding the capacity, range and functionality of mobile networks.
'The technologies we developed go beyond the LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G standard now being deployed for mobile communications... they are not next generation technologies, but rather "after-next-generation" technologies,' Prof. Luise, the technical manager of Newcom++ explains. 'By working on them, we hope to help Europe regain its prominence in the field of wireless and mobile communications.'
'A lot of this research - dealing with capacity, bandwidth, localisation and security, for example - could be implemented for the next generation of smart phones after 4G, but some of it goes beyond that, even touching on abstract areas such as information theory,' he notes.
Training a new generation of researchers
The Newcom++ team's long-term approach has also been evident in another key aspect of the project: the training of young researchers in the mobile and wireless communications field. Over the three and a half years that the network was formally in operation, a series of winter and summer schools were held in different cities across Europe. At each school, between 40 and 50 students had the chance to learn firsthand from some of the leading researchers in the field.
'If we want Europe to remain a leader in communications technology in the long term, we need to ensure that there are new researchers and new ideas to drive innovation,' Prof. Luise says.
Many of the researchers involved in the network of excellence are continuing to use a collaborative online platform called the 'Virtual center of excellence on wireless communications' (ViCE-WiCom), that was set up by the partners to enhance knowledge-sharing and collaboration among universities and research institutes. The platform has even been used for a PhD distance learning course.
Other tangible outcomes of the cooperative attitude towards research are two books, 'The NEWCOM++ Vision Book: Perspectives of Research on Wireless Communications in Europe' and 'Satellite and Terrestrial Radio Positioning Techniques,' that have been published by different teams involved in the project.
The partners have also established a Belgium-headquartered non-profit group, the European Association for Communications and Networking (Euracon), to focus primarily on education, training and event organisation in the mobile and wireless communications field.
A follow-up project, aimed at establishing a network of European laboratories focused on further developing wireless technologies, is also planned.
Newcom++ received research funding under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).