New smart surface boosts mobile phone signal strength by 1,000pc

4 Feb 2020

The RFocus platform has more than 3,000 antennas. Image: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL

Engineers have developed a smart surface material that can boost the strength of 5G signals, and any mobile signal, by 1,000pc.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and AI Laboratory believe we have been going about the roll-out of 5G and existing mobile phone networks the wrong way. Instead of adding antennas to cell towers – or antennas to devices – we can amplify the signal by adding antennas directly onto the external surfaces around us.

In a paper published online, the researchers revealed a new system called RFocus. This is a software-controlled smart surface that uses more than 3,000 antennas to boost the strength of a signal at the receiver. In doing so, it increases signal strength for nearby devices by 1,000pc.

Furthermore, they said that the platform is very cost effective, costing only a few cents to manufacture because the antennas don’t process the signal; the platform just controls how it is reflected.

In addition to serving as a Wi-Fi range extender, the technology could become an important part of homes and factories in general.

‘Extremely promising’ tech

“The core goal here was to explore whether we can use elements in the environment and arrange them to direct the signal in a way that we can actually control,” said senior author of the study, Prof Hari Balakrishnan.

“If you want to have wireless devices that transmit at the lowest possible power but give you a good signal, this seems to be one extremely promising way to do it.”

PhD student Venkat Arun said that the biggest challenge in developing RFocus was how to configure the antennas to boost signal strength without any additional sensors. The resulting 2D surface was “surprisingly robust”, he added.

This is the latest in a string of technologies designed to boost communication and internet speeds using the world around us, without needing to build more cell towers. For example, Prof Kyle Jamieson of Princeton University proposed a method that would work for computers on either side of a wall.

“Smart surfaces give us literally thousands of antennas to play around with,” said Jamieson, who was not involved in the RFocus project.

“The best way of controlling all these antennas, and navigating the massive search space that results when you imagine all the possible antenna configurations, are just two really challenging open problems.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic