5G Signal Boosters Show Up Ahead of Regulations

FCC regulations haven't yet caught up with startups' 5G plans.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

October 15, 2019

4 Min Read
5G Signal Boosters Show Up Ahead of Regulations

Startup Pivotal Commware boasts more than $30 million in venture funding from big names such as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. But the company's 5G signal booster, scheduled for release later this year, is running into some interference due to requests by the company for labeling waivers from the FCC.

The Commission should refrain from granting Pivotal a waiver of any of the Commission’s rules," wrote Surecall -- which makes a range of 4G signal boosters, in comments to the FCC. Instead, the company said the FCC should solicit comments from the wider industry on what kinds of rules should be applied to signal boosters in mmWave spectrum.

And AT&T, in its own comments to the FCC said that, regardless of what it does with Pivotal's Echo device, the FCC should make sure 5G signal boosters in general don't interfere with operators' networks.

At issue is Pivotal Commware's Echo signal booster, first unveiled earlier this year. The gadget basically takes a 5G signal in millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum and pushes it through glass, in part using the company's special Holographic Beamforming (HBF) technology. Such technologies will be increasingly important for 5G in mmWave spectrum because transmissions in those kinds of spectrum bands can only travel a few thousand feet in the best of conditions, and are often foiled by seemingly innocuous obstacles like users' hands, certain kinds of glass and everyday objects like trees and buildings.

However, here in the very early days of 5G, there are no guidelines around the use of signal boosters for transmissions in mmWave bands.

"It's not your usual, typical... signal booster," said Mersad Cavcic, senior director of product management for Pivotal.

Boosting 4G
Almost a decade ago, the FCC -- the US government agency in charge of managing the nation's use of radio waves -- created rules around both commercial and industrial signal boosters. However, the agency's rules for commercial boosters only apply to devices transmitting in spectrum bands below 2.1GHz. Transmissions in mmWave spectrum bands are much, much higher than that, generally above 20GHz.

The reason the FCC didn't create rules around commercial signal boosting in mmWave spectrum is because, prior to the introduction of 5G, mmWave spectrum was generally considered "junk" spectrum due to its poor propagation characteristics. Now, though, operators such as Verizon and AT&T are betting much of their 5G futures on their ability to successfully deploy 5G into mmWave spectrum bands, as well as other spectrum bands.

So what does this all mean for Pivotal's 5G signal booster?

Blazing a trail
Pivotal CEO Brian Deutsch said the company has been working with the FCC for over six months on its Echo gadget, with both parties understanding that the agency's rules don't cover devices quite like it. He expects the FCC to grant Pivotal a waiver that would allow the company to sell the Echo in the US, and then for the FCC to begin crafting new rules that would apply to mmWave signal boosters like it.

At issue is whether Pivotal's Echo is an industrial or commercial signal booster. Industrial signal boosters must be installed by a technician, while commercial signal boosters are required to carry a number of warning labels -- labels that Pivotal argues don't apply to the Echo.

Pivotal's signal booster is unique not only because it works in mmWave bands but also because it can be remotely controlled by a wireless network operator. Meaning, if the gadget is causing interference, an operator like AT&T or Verizon could remotely turn it off -- that's not true for commercial 4G signal boosters.

Further, Pivotal's Deutsch said that the Echo won't be sold through standard third-party retail channels -- like today's 4G signal boosters -- but will instead be sold directly by wireless network operators. That would put the device more in line with gadgets such as AT&T's Metrocell femtocell, which plugs into an Internet connection in order to broadcast a bubble of 4G cellular coverage inside locations like an office building.

A signal booster that's pivotal to Verizon?
While neither company has publicly mentioned the other, Pivotal's Echo appears squarely targeted at operators such as Verizon that are using 5G in part for fixed wireless services. Verizon has said that it plans to relaunch its 5G Home Internet service later this year with equipment that uses the 5G NR transmission standard and in-home signal receivers that users can install by themselves. (That would allow Verizon to save money by eliminating the need for the operator to send out a technician to install the service.)

Similarly, Pivotal's Echo is designed for regular customers to install themselves in order to receive fixed wireless services. The goal of the Echo is to boost a 5G signal through a window and into a home or office -- exactly the kind of places that Verizon is trying to reach with 5G Home. Indeed, Verizon officials have already hinted at similar glass-penetrating devices.

Both Verizon and Pivotal are headed to the MWC Los Angeles show next week, where the companies could disclose more details of their respective plans.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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