Despite all the marketing, TV ads, and even talk about 4G LTE and now 5G, instances of poor wireless coverage remain a common frustration among users. But even where coverage is generally good, the combination of the imperfections of RF, the hundreds of variables impacting radio signals, and sheer economics, it means we will never have ‘perfect’ coverage. In fact, for each incremental improvement in coverage, getting to the next level becomes economically and physically more challenging.
Despite all this, there is a wave of new technology and products hitting the market in earnest, promising to help address some common coverage and capacity challenges, for both cellular and Wi-Fi. We’re not talking about rural or remote areas where, to be honest, if there’s no tower in the vicinity 30 years after the birth of cellular, there probably never will be. The focus here is on filling dead spots and “donut holes” in outdoor areas, and providing deeper and more reliable coverage inside buildings. Let’s divide these developments between cellular and Wi-Fi.
Four important things are happening in the cellular realm that could have some meaningful impact this year. First, wireless carriers are starting to deploy small cells in significant numbers. Small cells increase network capacity and provide improved outdoor and in-building coverage. Verizon for example, is deploying small cells in major cities, in order to alleviate congestion issues being experienced in large issues due to burgeoning data usage. So your four bars of LTE will get you the sorts of speeds that feel like four bars of LTE. Sprint, for its buildout of the 2.5 GHz band in major cities (branded LTE Plus), is relying heavily on small cells.
Second, additional spectrum acquired over the past few years is coming online this year. T-Mobile continues to roll out its A-block 700 MHz spectrum, which provides approximately 2x the coverage from a single cell site, and better in-building coverage, compared to its higher band spectrum. TMO’s A-block holdings now cover about 2/3 of the U.S. population. As another example, AT&T is slated to turn on some of its WCS spectrum this year. And 600 MHz auctions are scheduled to begin soon, although services using that spectrum will not be rolled out until at least 2018.
Third, wireless carriers are starting to employ elements of LTE Advanced, namely carrier aggregation, which combines channels across all their spectrum holdings. This “wider channel” results in capacity and throughput enhancements.
And finally, improved femtocell and residential small cell products are becoming available. The most public and notable example is T-Mobile’s residential 4G LTE CellSpot product, which the carrier is basically giving away to subscribers who require improved in-building coverage (read our test drive of the product here). As another example, Nextivity, a leader in the femto market, has introduced a new signal booster for in-building coverage, supporting LTE and UMTS, that provides significant increases in gain and bandwidth compared to previous products.
Wi-Fi is another important part of connectivity, of course. What’s always been amazing to me is consumers rush out and buy the latest smartphones, or try to make the most out of their cellular network, while their router hasn’t been updated in five years and sits behind a shelf collecting dust. Well, now might be the time for an upgrade. A new crop of routers is coming to market, promising significant improvements in range and performance. The most advanced 802.11ac routers, such as the D-Link AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Router have one channel at 2.4 GHz and 2 channels at 5 GHz and up to 8 spatial streams of MIMO, providing 4x the channel bandwidth of previous versions. And just a couple of weeks ago, Eero launched its new home “Wi-Fi System” to rave reviews. Eero relies on multiple APs in the home connected via a mesh network to deliver significantly improved coverage and performance.
In addition to new and better Wi-Fi network equipment, there are significant efforts to increase capacity in the unlicensed (Wi-Fi) bands. Over the past couple of years, additional capacity has been allocated in the 5 GHz band for Wi-Fi, which has led to a new crop of multi-band routers. There’s also terrestrial low power service (TLPS), which uses a slice of the spectrum that satellite provider Globalstar owns in the 2.4 GHz band, as a supplemental channel for Wi-Fi. Globalstar has petitioned the FCC to allow it to open channel 14, which would add to channels 1, 6, & 11 in the 2.4 GHz band currently used for Wi-Fi, providing a meaningful increase in capacity. Finally, there’s progress being made on LTE-U, which would allow incumbent wireless operators to use up to 500 MHz in the 5 GHz unlicensed band, for mainly downlink LTE services. LTE-U promises about 2x the range and capacity of current Wi-Fi (see my recent piece on LTE-U).
RF will always be capacity-limited and coverage will never be perfect. But 2016 looks to be a breakout year in terms of more spectrum and innovative products and solutions in both cellular and Wi-Fi.