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Enhanced Time as a Service: transforming telecom networks into a 'SuperGPS' system

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - OPNT (Enhanced Time as a Service: transforming telecom networks into a 'SuperGPS' system)

Reporting period: 2017-12-01 to 2018-03-31

OPNT is developing a time synchronization system, based on existing fiber-optic networks, which will eclipse the accuracy and robustness of current GNSS-based timing. Our enhanced Time as a Service (eTaaS) is a network-based alternative to current timing systems that will not only offer greater accuracy, but will also mitigate the vulnerabilities of satellite timing.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are working towards offering their customers better services, with new networks like 5G, while remaining competitive in a fierce industry. The required investment for infrastructure upgrades to accommodate new technologies is costly and a hindrance to these companies’ growth potential. As such, the rapid growth that this industry has witnessed in the past few years will taper off in the near future, and only moderately expand beyond 2020. OPNT’s system will allow these companies to affordably implement a time synchronization system into their network that will permit greater broadcast capacity, and thus limit the necessary expenditure to accommodate for new 5G networks.
GNSS-based time synchronization is susceptible to various weaknesses, from clock errors that will adversely affect the precision of positioning devices, to weak signals due to the distance a signal needs to travel from satellite to receiver. They are also vulnerable to signal spoofing and cyber-attacks on master control stations (with serious consequences to GNSS operations), and to weather in space such as solar flares and radiation storms, that can affect radio frequency signals. OPNT has developed a system that affordably mitigates all these challenges by using already existing fiber-optic networks, therefore not entailing high costs for MNOs.
OPNT expects to launch its fully completed eTaaS system at the conclusion of the Phase 2 project in 2020, with an estimated cumulative revenue of €96.7 million after 5 years of commercialization, while expanding from Europe to North America and Asia.
Objective 1: Complete the prototypes of the Timing Node, Timing Switch and Bi-directional Amplifier, substituting all remaining components of CERN Open HW with own IEEE1588-2019 compatible protocol and HW. Key findings: We will continue working towards having a fully upgraded system as objective for the Phase 2 project. These components will be the backbone of OPNT as they be used to implement our time synchronization system.

Objective 2: Improve the supply chain structure in order to produce more efficient alternatives. We also need to eliminate any component that may prevent us from patenting or a secure exploitation of our IPR. Key Findings: As we work for a fully functional system, and upgrade the White Rabbit hardware, we will work to improve our supply chain structure to assure that the components we implement into our devices are in line with our design, as well as exclusive and unique for future patent applications. We will make sure that any hardware design is therefore unique and applicable for IP protection.

Objective 3: We need to assure the upgrades for the Timing Node, Timing Switch and Bi-directional amplifier that we will produce to obtain a fully functional system. Key findings: In order to obtain these upgrades, for the Timing Node we will substitute third party OEM hardware by our own, as well as integrate a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) of our own IEEE1588-2019 protocol in anticipation of future application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) integration. For the Timing Switch, we need to integrate our own IEEE1588-2019 protocol and hardware implementation. For both the Timing Node and Switch will run a low-symbol-rate IEEE1588-2019 version for microwave links to provide an alternative synchronization for 4G, 5G base stations, and pseudolites for positioning. And finally, for the bi-directional amplifier, we will finalize it with a flexible modular design (electronics and Wavelength Division Multiplexer (WDM) modules).

Objective 4: A software upgrade is also required in order to fully develop the OPNT system. Key findings: We will exploit Ethernet management ports and protocols, as well as upgrade the nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) to be able to be able to handle continuously growing networks. We will upgrade fault management, configuration and provisioning management as well as performance management. We also expect to implement two NEMS, the first will be for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) that can be integrated in already existing customer networks’ NEMS, and the second will be a stand-alone Graphical User Interface based NEMS. Further software development will assure automate calibration of different delays due to chromatic dispersion, as ‘self-healing’ algorithm to coordinate automated failover regardless of the network topology.

Objective 5: Our fully upgraded system will subsequently be tested and validated in real-life operating conditions. Key findings: A 12 week trial of the different applications will be done, which will include some of our current collaborators. To this end, 2 pilots will be performed: we will first use our eTaaS for the synchronization of a subset of Vodafone base stations in order to fulfil the 5G requirements. The second will be performed with ASTRON-LOFAR (The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) as we collaborate in the ASTERICS project, as well as a project proposal to implement SuperGPS in the LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) antenna in order to improve its resolution.

Objective 6: We will perform a risk assessment for all technical activities to identify areas of concern and define proper mitigation and contingency measures. Key findings: We will conduct a thorough risk assessment to identify all possible issues that may arise and adversely affect the production and commercialization of OPNT. As such, we have identified realistic and credible mitigation measures in order to anticipate possible challenges that we may come across during this project.

Objective 7: Preparation of a detailed work plan for Phase 2. Key findings: We have defined the requirements for our OPNT project and have concluded that it will take 18 months and will include 6 work packages to bring to completion.

Objective 8: We conducted an extensive market research on GNSS services and the associated applications in order to adequately assess the current market for our time synchronization solution. Key findings: For the Feasibility Study, we looked into the GNSS market to evaluate the trends that will affect our product. We found that this market is growing, and is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future. There is a need from Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to cut costs while still presenting offerings that are in line with customer’s expectations, notably in regards to new networks like 5G. The maintenance and upgrade expenditures required for MNOs to stay competitive are high, and OPNT is therefore prepared to enter this market to offer our solution as a viable and robust alternative to GNSS-based time synchronization.

Objective 9: Perform a Freedom-to-Operate (FTO), as well as a patent and strategy analysis for our target markets: Key findings: AS part of the Feasibility Study, we have researched competing technologies to ours, and have found that we have no impediment to proceed with the development of our product. No product on the market currently presents the specificities that we offer with our eTaaS system, and we can therefore continue with our Phase 2 project. As such, we expect to continue our product development that we will commercialize to Vodafone in The Netherlands first, our current collaborator during trials and tests. Afterwards, we will expand to the rest of Europe while leveraging this work relationship, while also setting our sights on the North American market where we are beginning to introduce our solution through local MNOs. In regards to patents application, we also expect to file for at least 5 patents for

Objective 10: Consolidation and search for partner(s) to produce our OPNT devices. Key Findings: in order to assure that the production of our devices is on par with our expectations, we will conduct a thorough search for a partner who will be retained to manufacturer our bi-directional amplifiers, our Timing Nodes and Switches.

Objective 11: Confirm our overall business plan (SWOT analysis, Canvas Business Model and critical risk factor assessment). Key findings: Thanks to our SWOT analysis, Canvas Business model and our critical risk factor assessment, we have confirmed that our main challenges will be the competition from the already widely used GNSS-based time synchronization. We need to differentiate our product in order to successfully bring it to market, thus offering an alternative to current systems.

Objective 12: Conduct a risk/benefits assessment. Key findings: Through our risk/benefit assessment, we have identified the different challenges that we are likely to face while developing our OPNT system. As a result, we have also identified how to mitigate these challenges, while also establishing our unique selling points that will make OPNT a viable alternative to GNSS-based time synchronization.

Objective 13: Assessment of the total required investment to complete our OPNT project and prepare it for market launch. Key findings: Through our Feasibility Study, we have concluded that we will require a total investment of € 2,450,500 in order to finalize our project and bring our product to market.

Objective 14: Establish a 5-year financial projections with estimated profitability of the project. Key findings: We have estimated that after 5 years of commercialization of OPNT, we will generate a ROI of 72 with a payback of less than 2 years, including a cumulative revenue of approximately €96.7 million.
OPNT’s ambition for our eTaaS system is to become an alternative for GNSS-based and gain a foothold in the time synchronization market for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). We offer extremely accurate timing that will enable MNOs to streamline their operations, notably with the advent of 5G networks.
Our system has its roots in the SuperGPS project from Delft University where the viability of this type of fiber-optic based timing system has been proven. The promise of our project lies on the fact that we offer an extremely accurate timing system that far outperforms that of GNSS timing, while leveraging already existing fiber-optic networks. This translates into efficient and cost-effective systems that will allow for greater broadcast capacity, enabling MNOs to offer 5G networks without the enormous expenditure required for its implementation. The required investment from MNOs, software developers and device manufacturers among others to implement the 5G network has been estimated at approximately $200 billion a year, making this new network a big investment that will test the competitiveness of many companies.
GNSS timing has liabilities that can affect the quality of its signal, and therefore affect the precision of the positioning device that is being used. This can have a severe impact because of the ubiquity of GNSS location services, they are used everywhere, from mobile phones, to maritime and airline systems, to surveying systems and agriculture. The quality and accuracy of the timing required doesn’t only need to high, but with the introduction of 5G and the need from emerging state-of-the-art systems, the future requirements will need to extremely high. Among the various vulnerabilities of GNSS systems, we highlight the following:
1) The distance a signal needs to travel from satellite to device can be affected, decreasing in strength and susceptible to intentional and unintentional interference
2) Clocks in satellites can fail, severely affecting the precision of positioning devices, and in worst case scenarios render a satellite inoperable
3) Space weather in the form of solar flares and radiation storms is a factor that can also affect the quality and strength of a signal from a satellite
4) Cyber-attacks and spoofing can be used to jam or mimic a signal, adversely affecting GNSS-based signals
OPNT’s system mitigates all these limitations, and the preliminary test and trials conducted in collaboration with Vodafone in The Netherlands has proven that our system works. The accuracy that we have obtained has been observed at less than one nanosecond, thus giving networks the ability to reach extreme precision with their already existing fiber-optic networks. This working collaboration with Vodafone has also enabled us to acquire legitimacy and potential for future implementation of our system, once it is fully developed and ready for market.