DoCoMo counting on R&D to stay ahead

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

NTT DoCoMo Inc., despite being Japan’s biggest mobile phone carrier, has been struggling against tough smartphone competition from KDDI Corp. and Softbank Corp., which is leading in that area.

But one edge that the cellphone behemoth — it has more than 60 million subscribers — still holds is in research and development. It devotes an average of more than ¥100 billion on R&D every year, about 2.5 percent of sales.

KDDI, which runs the au mobile phone service, spent about ¥32 billion on R&D in fiscal 2011, while Softbank invested a mere ¥860 million.

The abundant resources DoCoMo devotes to research could allow the firm to develop killer products and turn its game around. At least the new technologies in the works at DoCoMo’s research and development center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, show that the firm is cultivating new ground, both in networks and devices.

During a recent visit to the research center, DoCoMo said some of the new ideas in development actually came from lessons learned in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

One prominent field is using renewable energy to power mobile networks.

“When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011, it took a month to restore network base stations. After all, power is essential for stable network communications,” said Kazuhiko Takeno, an executive research engineer in the R&D center’s environmental tech group.

People were unable to use their cellphones as the blackout caused by the quake and tsunami left many base stations useless. These stations have lead batteries for emergencies, but they only store enough juice to last two or three hours.

DoCoMo is now developing “green” base stations equipped with solar panels and lithium-ion batteries.

In sunny daytime weather, the solar panels generate enough power to run each station without having to tap into the standard electrical grid, while the lithium-ion batteries store the excess.

The trick is making them completely autonomous when it comes to the electricity supply. “We’re researching how we can manage to store power to run the base stations when there is no power supply from the utilities,” Takeno said.

The R&D center is experimenting with base stations not only on its premises but also in three locations in Tokyo and Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures.

Another area for research is the fast LTE network.

LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution, is several times faster than the 3G network that currently forms the backbone of cellphone communications.

DoCoMo was the first carrier in Japan to launch the LTE network, known as Xi, in 2010.

However, nearly all handsets by rival carriers are now LTE-ready, so having faster, smoother and wider LTE coverage has taken on added urgency.

Currently, DoCoMo is increasing the speed of LTE, and a prototype system exhibited at the R&D center transmitted high-quality video simultaneously on 12 big monitors. To accomplish this feat, the base station network has to move 180 megabits of data per second, a couple of times faster than the average household Internet connection.

A fast and stable network is indispensable to transmitting high-quality video, given the gargantuan amounts of data involved.

While developing improvements in network infrastructure goes on, DoCoMo is also creating futuristic services for handset users. Now that smartphones, which have the processing power of a small computer, have become an integral part of society, the carrier plans to offer more elaborate services.

A concept model of a so-called biochip mobile phone is one example. The idea is to have a biochip built into a phone monitor the user’s health through things like breath, saliva and perspiration.

For instance, a bluetooth attachment can gauge how hungry a person is by detecting acetone, which is produced inside the body.

The biochip mobile phone is still in the concept stage and DoCoMo has yet to set a target for when it will reach commercial use. The firm is already providing services to help users keep track of their health conditions via smartphones.

Other technologies on display offer a glimpse into a futuristic society.

A device worn like a watch detects the motion of a tapping finger, allowing a person to control nearby devices by tapping different rhythms. Turning on a TV or unlocking a door may become merely a matter of snapping your fingers.

A hands-free video phone that looks like a pair of high-tech glasses enables the user to see the person they are talking to, and the other person can see the wearer via built-in cameras.

DoCoMo says it wants to take the technology even further. Researchers hope the glasses will project information about whatever the wearer is looking at. For instance, if the user looks at something in a store, information regarding the product will pop up inside the glasses.

Such communications devices could play a significant role in the coming years, as Google also plans to sell special glasses in 2014.

DoCoMo said it is aiming to make its glasses commercially available by 2020.