August 23, 2012

New Antenna May Be Solution For Data Hungry Devices

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

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As wireless providers tighten up the reins on data consumption with the rising popularity of smartphones and tablets, researchers from Rice University say they may have a solution.

Scientist unveiled a new multi-antenna technology on Thursday that could help companies like Verizon and AT&T keep up with heavy load data devices like iPads and iPhones.

Companies are cracking down on these data hungry devices, going from once unlimited data plans to increasingly more expensive plans. As more devices begin to get onto networks, carriers are trying to find ways to boost network capacity.

The technology could dramatically increase network capacity by allowing cell towers to simultaneously beam signals to over a dozen customers on the same frequency.

Details about the technology were presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's MobiCom 2012.

The prototype the researchers developed this year uses 64 antennas to allow a single wireless base station to communicate directly with 15 users simultaneously with narrowly focused directional beams.

During tests, Argos, the antenna, allowed a single base station to track and send highly directional beams to more than a dozen users on the same frequency at a time. Argos would be helping carriers increase network capacity without having to acquire more spectrum, the team said.

“The technical term for this is multi-user beamforming,” Argos project co-leader Lin Zhong, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science at Rice, said in a press release. “The key is to have many antennas, because the more antennas you have, the more users you can serve.”

Before Argos, laboratories struggled to roll out prototype test beds because of the technical challenges scientists faced.

“There are all kinds of technical challenges related to synchronization, computational requirements, scaling up and wireless standards,” Zhong said in the release. “People have really questioned whether this is practical, so it´s significant that we´ve been able to create a prototype that actually demonstrates that this works.”

Argos presents new techniques to the field, by allowing the number of antennas on base stations to grow to unprecedented scales.

The current prototype uses dozens of open-access test devices called WARP boards that were invented by the university's Center for Multimedia Communications.

Argos was able to simultaneously beam signals to as many as 15 users on the same frequency during tests.

The scientists said that for wireless carriers, that performance would translate to more than a six-fold increase in network capacity.

“There´s also a big payoff in energy savings,” Rice graduate student Clayton Shepard, who built the Argos prototype, said in the press release. “The amount of power you need for transmission goes down in proportion to the number of antennas you have. So in Argos´ case, we need only about one-sixty-fourth as much energy to serve those 15 users as you would need with a traditional antenna.”

The researchers said Argos is still five years away from being available to the commercial market, and it would require new network hardware and a new generation of smartphones and tablets.

“The bandwidth crunch is here, and carriers need options,” Zhong said in the release. “They´re going to pay close attention to any new technologies that may allow them to serve more customers with fewer resources.”