SpiderCloud Wireless Offers a Solution for Bad Indoor Cell Phone ReceptionOctober 09, 2010
San Jose Mercury News
by Troy Wolverton
It’s probably happened to you: While indoors, your cell phone drops a call or you have a tough time placing one.
You can scream at your cell phone company all you want, but the problem is a tough one to solve. The wireless networks’ traditional antenna towers were designed for serving customers when they were outdoors or on the road, not inside their homes or offices. Newer antenna systems can do a better job offering service indoors, but they tend to be expensive or difficult to use.
But some new technology from SpiderCloud Wireless, a Santa Clara startup, may soon make indoor cell phone service a lot easier to get and a lot more reliable. The company has developed an indoor antenna system that it touts as low-cost and easy to deploy and maintain.
If SpiderCloud’s claims prove out, the company’s system could soon be making its way into your office or corporate campus. Given the growing importance of cell phones in corporate America and elsewhere, many companies are already clamoring for better indoor coverage.
“I’ve been asking my operator for something like this for many years,” said Art King, global network architect for a Fortune 200 manufacturing company that King wasn’t authorized to name. “It’s kind of nice to see that dream become reality.”
SpiderCloud’s antenna system, dubbed E-Ran for Enterprise Radio Access Network, works like a business-class Wi-Fi network. It consists of a collection of small radio transmitters that are similar to Wi-Fi access points but send out 3G signals used by cell phones. The transmitters link up with an existing data network, much like a Wi-Fi radio, transferring Internet data directly to and from the Internet, while sending voice traffic back to a particular wireless carrier.
The E-Ran system is designed to hand off calls and data traffic from one transmitter to another and from a transmitter to an outside cell tower seamlessly as users move around in a building, or in and out of it. The transmitters are small and designed to be installed or replaced quickly and easily. And because they use a company’s existing data network, they can offer much higher data speeds than users typically get when they connect to cell towers.
SpiderCloud, which has 65 employees and has raised about $40 million in venture capital funding, doesn’t plan to sell E-Ran directly to the companies that would use the system. Instead, it plans to market it to the wireless operators who own the spectrum whose signals the system will carry.
The company, which plans to begin selling E-Ran next year, has not yet disclosed prices but says its system will be of modest cost compared with alternative solutions. And carriers, by off-loading voice and data traffic from their network to their corporate customers, would ease their capacity issues without the expense of having to lay down new data cables or construct new towers.
Carriers have used various antenna technologies to improve indoor service for big customers, but SpiderCloud CEO Mike Gallagher said his company’s system will allow carriers to improve service for small companies as well.
“We’ve developed a system that’s cost-effective. It can go down to a firm of 75 to 100 people,” said Gallagher, who like many on his executive team has worked for decades in the wireless industry. “It scales way, way down.”
SpiderCloud’s system falls in line with industry trends. Analysts and insiders foresee growing use of smaller cell phone transmitters in coming years because of the cost and frequent community objections to rolling out new cell phone towers.
“What they’re doing makes a lot of sense,” said Godfrey Chua, a wireless industry analyst at IDC, a technology research firm. “Customers need that better coverage and carriers need to deliver it.”
Existing solutions generally haven’t solved the problem of providing reliable indoor service. Some systems try to bring cell phone signals indoors by using wires or antennas to extend or repeat outdoor signals. But those systems can be expensive to deploy and they don’t add extra capacity because they are tied into the carriers’ data lines.
So-called femtocells work similarly to the individual transmitters in SpiderCloud’s E-Ran, but if you have more than one, they typically don’t work well together. And many require administrators to preprogram lists of authorized users, making them difficult to maintain.
Wi-Fi access points can offer Internet access indoors, but few companies use them for voice service. And like femtocells they’re often configured to allow only authorized users.
“The need is definitely there (for SpiderCloud’s system), no question about that,” said Michael Thelander, CEO of Signals Research Group, a wireless industry consulting firm. “What they’re trying to do is pretty important for the industry.”
That said, there’s no guarantee that SpiderCloud’s system will win a wide following. The end users who would benefit from better coverage aren’t the ones who would be deploy it. And the carriers may be a tough sell.
Michele Iseri, who oversees Verizon Wireless’ network in Northern California, said her company already does a good job of offering indoor service with its traditional cell towers. And where it sees problem areas, the company has rolled out a variety of solutions.
“Our indoor penetration is good,” she said.
AT&T, meanwhile, is “always searching for new methods to deliver the best possible coverage” for its wireless network, said John Britton, a company spokesman. Like Verizon, though, the company already is deploying other solutions, he said. And upcoming next-generation networks should do a better job of penetrating buildings from the outside, he noted.
Indeed, those companies interested in a solution like SpiderCloud’s say convincing the carriers may be the biggest obstacle to getting it in place.
“I’ve suggested (SpiderCloud’s system) to a couple carriers,” said Fred Archibald, who helps oversee wireless and network access for thousands of students and staff and faculty members at UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. “They don’t really seem to understand it or that this technology is available.”
But Archibald hopes they get up to speed soon.
“Everybody’s got a cell phone or a smartphone these days, and everyone’s using them more and more,” he said. “They just expect them to work ubiquitously.”