Active steering techniques in wireless devices can alleviate the spectrum crunch

October 28, 2014

Active steering techniques in wireless devices can alleviate the spectrum crunch

It's an exciting time for the wireless industry. Carriers are on a roll launching 4G networks. OEMs are debuting some of the coolest wireless devices...

It’s an exciting time for the wireless industry. Carriers are on a roll launching 4G networks. OEMs are debuting some of the coolest wireless devices yet, from sexy smartphones and tablets to a number of new wearables and IoT products. And consumers can’t seem to get enough – they want the latest feature-packed devices, fastest data speeds, and more.

While first instinct may be to sit back and let the good times roll, now’s the time to buckle down and figure out how to manage this wireless growth, especially since it’s impacting wireless operators’ networks and leaving them struggling to improve their network capacity and achieve quality of service (QoS) on the cell edges. All while the industry is preparing for a 1,000x increase in traffic with no relief to the spectrum crunch in sight.

Spectrum is expensive when it’s even available, and building new cell sites to add capacity isn’t cheap, either. So what’s an operator to do when spectrum is limited and it’s up against the much dreaded spectrum crunch?

In the past, buying more spectrum and infrastructure build-outs have been the only viable options for operators to handle their spectrum woes. Fortunately, advances have been made so that operators have another viable option, which is to look inside the devices that run on their 3G and 4G networks. Antenna system technology has recently advanced to the point that it’s possible to increase spectral efficiency, and not by just single-digit percent, but 30 percent.

In fact, newer embedded antenna technologies can enable “beamsteering” via the wireless device. Similar to a base station application, this active steering technique enables a single antenna inside a smartphone, tablet, or IoT device to generate multiple radiation patterns. Algorithms continuously choose the ideal pattern based on the RF environment at that particular moment. For example, one pattern is used when the device is near the base station. As the device begins to move away, the algorithms choose a pattern that’s better able to maximize throughput and QoS as signal strength declines and multipath becomes more of an issue. This process continues as the RF environment changes again and again, from second to second.

The greatest performance benefits from active steering occur when a user is on the cell edge. In this type of an application, the radiation modes are “steered” away from inter-cell and intra-cell interference to provide a strong connection with the serving cell. In the case of low SINR, spectral efficiency gains of up to 120 percent have been demonstrated while consuming fewer network resources. In the case of a congested tower, technology can select the tower providing the best connection and performance, “steering” the radiation mode away from the congested cell tower and toward a cell tower with more capacity.

What started as a way to improve device performance has shown significant benefit to operators. In fact, in recent trials with two separate commercial LTE networks in the U.S. and in Europe, active steering technology embedded in a device increased spectral efficiency by 30 percent. For customers, it means they can stream video that’s not going to tile or freeze. For mobile operators, there’s less need to spend money on more spectrum or towers to ensure that there’s enough capacity and signal in a key area. And for OEMs, they can deliver feature-packed devices that perform to the highest of standards while being light on the network.

Active steering techniques are not only the OEMs’ latest innovative solution to increasing performance and efficiency for their devices. They can be the impetus to solving carriers’ network capacity and traffic issues while delivering the cutting-edge, feature-packed devices that consumers desire.

Jeff Shamblin is the Chief Scientist at Ethertronics, and is responsible for overseeing all research and development projects for the corporation. Shamblin brings 29 years experience in antenna engineering to this position. Prior to his work in RFID, Shamblin spent more than 20 years in antenna design and development in the aerospace industry. He holds seven patents relating to antenna technology. Shamblin earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from California State University, Northridge.

Jeff Shamblin, Ethertronics
Networking & 5G