CES 2017: Can a Self-Steering Antenna Fix Both Wi-Fi and TV Reception Issues?

Ethertronics says its antenna steering technology can remove Wi-Fi dead spots and let you cut your cable TV bill

2 min read
Four antenna radiation patterns generated by an Ethertronics antenna chip; the system automatically selects the best one in a particular environment
Four antenna radiation patterns generated by an Ethertronics antenna chip; the system automatically selects the best one in a particular environment
Photo: Tekla Perry

CES 2017 wasn’t the show of the shiny new product. Wearables drew yawns, TV manufacturers spent more time talking about how to install their products on consumer walls than about the products themselves, and the lines to try on VR headsets were surprisingly short. Without the distraction of the next possibly big thing, it was easy to focus on the frustrations of the things we have now.

And one big frustration is Wi-Fi that isn’t always there, fast, and reliable. That frustration is why two router companies made the final round of the annual “Last Gadget Standing Event,” and earned their fair share of cheers: Ignition Design Labs, with its Portal home Wi-Fi system, and Linksys, with its Velop home mesh network.

The two take different approaches to addressing Wi-Fi frustration. The Portal’s approach of using Wi-Fi fast lanes and looking ahead for traffic jams (described in detail in Spectrum’s “Why Wi-Fi Stinks—and How to Fix It”), is suited for urban areas crowded with WiFi hotspots. Linksys, and other mesh network providers, makes sense for suburban customers, eager to get Wi-Fi signals to the outer edges of large houses and yards.

Off the show floor, antenna designer Ethertronics suggested a third approach: an automated antenna optimization technology it calls active steering.

The San Diego-based company says that its technology can generate four different radiation patterns from a single antenna. For devices with multiple antennae—like cell phones and Wi-Fi routers—these patterns can combine exponentially. The Ethertronics antenna systems monitor signal strength in order to select the best pattern, constantly switching between patterns if necessary. What’s more, as they are used in a particular environment, they learn which patterns tend to be optimal for that space.

That means, explained, Jeff Shamblin, Ethertronics chief scientist, that a Wi-Fi router using the technology would automatically react to a home’s layout to pick a signal pattern that would reduce dead spots, changing that pattern, say, when a group of people cluster in one room and affect signal strength. Or, he said, an indoor TV antenna could switch its RF characteristics when you change stations (the equivalent of manually fussing with rabbit ears) while the antenna itself remains motionless on the wall; that’d be appealing for cord-cutters who use a combination of broadcast TV and streaming services to avoid cable television bills.

Shamblin said that the company’s antenna systems will start showing up in Wi-Fi routers in the second half of 2017; TV antenna hardware is also in the works for this year.

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The Cellular Industry’s Clash Over the Movement to Remake Networks

The wireless industry is divided on Open RAN’s goal to make network components interoperable

13 min read
Photo: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

We've all been told that 5G wireless is going to deliver amazing capabilities and services. But it won't come cheap. When all is said and done, 5G will cost almost US $1 trillion to deploy over the next half decade. That enormous expense will be borne mostly by network operators, companies like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and dozens more around the world that provide cellular service to their customers. Facing such an immense cost, these operators asked a very reasonable question: How can we make this cheaper and more flexible?

Their answer: Make it possible to mix and match network components from different companies, with the goal of fostering more competition and driving down prices. At the same time, they sparked a schism within the industry over how wireless networks should be built. Their opponents—and sometimes begrudging partners—are the handful of telecom-equipment vendors capable of providing the hardware the network operators have been buying and deploying for years.

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