Signal repeaters and boosters have shifted the conversation around network densification
It is widely accepted that to achieve the coverage and speeds promised by 5G, it will be necessary to increase network capacity via the addition of more cell sites. However, the level of network densification needed to keep up with increasing data demands poses its own set of problems, including — but not limited to — cost, policy and the sheer complexity of building out thousands of base stations.
While in some cases, there is no avoiding building an entire cell site, there will be a number of situations in which coverage can instead be supplied by signal amplifiers, such as repeaters or boosters. In fact, according to Pivotal Commware’s CEO Brian Deutsch, amplifiers have caused a shift in the conversation around network densification.
Specifically, repeaters that make use of beamforming technology could be used to offset the need for new base station buildouts. This has the potential to adding network density in terms of coverage, but not so much in terms of physical infrastructure, especially when it comes to the neediest spectrum: Millimeter wave.
By focusing a wireless signal towards a specific receiving device, rather than allowing it to spread in all directions, beamforming creates a more direct, and therefore, faster and more reliable, connection.
Because a signal booster or repeater is nondiscriminatory, when used with sub 6 frequencies, those signals tend to travel too far and in too many directions, bouncing off everything, creating significant network interference.
“With sub 6 signals, you would fix one problem and create four others,” Deutsch said. “But, guess what?” he continued. “That doesn’t happen with mmWave, because those signals are ridiculously deterministic.”
Deutsch claimed that with the addition of the right signal amplifier, a single base station that may previously only been able to provide coverage to 20 or 30 homes, would be capable of covering hundreds of homes.
“That was a kind of a mic drop for folks at the wireless carriers,” he said.
On the signal booster side of things, SureCall Founder & CEO Hongtao Zhan believes that in five years, a staggering 80% of the mmWave 5G network will be made up of booster products.
“Check back with me in a few years,” he joked.
He acknowledged, however, that there is never going to be a single solution that solves all of the industry’s problems. “You need all of it — base stations, small cells, boosters — you need them all. Base stations provide the backbone of the network. Small cells provide the capacity. But that’s not enough.”
Zhan cites a number of reasons to support his claim that boosters will feature more prominently than base stations in our future mmWave networks, such as economics, multi-carrier opportunities, policy challenges and indoor use cases.
In July, SureCall announced the FlareDB+, a new 5G-compatible dual band in-home booster specifically designed to improve signals for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile US devices, which directly addresses the indoor use case scenario. In the product announcement, Zhan positioned the new product as a solution for the millions of Americans who are now working from home and “depend on reliable cell service to do their jobs.”
“With SureCall’s 2XP technology, users get the most powerful signal available for a product in its class and are assured faster data speeds and reduced dropped calls,” he added.
While it’s unclear if signal repeaters and boosters will truly dominate our mmWave networks as Zhan predicted, there is certainly carrier interest in these types of solutions. For example, in May, Verizon partnered with Pivotal Commware to conduct trials in Dearborn, Michigan that improve 5G coverage and performance for residents and visitors by strategically placing intelligent repeaters to enhance and boost Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wide Band signal.
When news of its partnership with Verizon was revealed, Deutsch explained that the company believes that the massive bandwidth available at mmWave frequencies is necessary to achieve the immersive ultra-wideband 5G experience that Verizon’s network promises.
“We’ve turned the perceived underpinning weaknesses of mmWave into strengths using innovations in electromagnetic science,” he commented. “Our holographic beamforming technology solves mmWave coverage challenges outdoors and counteracts reflection, penetration and shadowing loss indoors — to achieve the gigabit speeds end-users expect and to deliver cost, size, weight and performance that is orders of magnitude improvement over legacy technology like phased array and MIMO.”
Kevin Smith, vice president of Network Planning for Verizon, provided his own insights on the value of signal repeaters: “As we’ve known since our very early trials, high-band spectrum provides more limited coverage from macro cells. Introducing repeaters like the ones we are trialing from Pivotal will help us expand the footprint of our new 5G Ultra Wide Band network and provide another tool in the toolbox for robust network design.”
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