Alpha Wireless is supplying 3.5 GHz-capable antennas to Nextlink Internet, which provides broadband internet service throughout the Midwest. The large-scale, private LTE network deployment using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum helps Nextlink increase capacity while reducing the cost of rural broadband provision.
The multiyear Nextlink deployment includes the Alpha Wireless AW3161 3.5 GHz antenna working with Nokia radios in an LTE network, which can be upgraded to 5G wireless communications. The CBRS-ready antennas include pseudo-omni, small cell, beamforming, concealment and tri-sector antennas.
Tim Sill, Alpha Wireless’ vice president of technology and business development, spoke with eDigest Senior Editor J. Sharpe Smith about how the world of mid-band antennas is evolving in the context of the recent C band and CBRS spectrum allocations.
eDigest: Tell me about your company.
Sill: Alpha Wireless began in 2007, building 2.5 GHz and 3.5 GHz antennas. We pride ourselves on being able to roll up our sleeves, work closely with our customers and present them with high-performance solutions in a short amount of time at an attractive price. We have a design process that allows us to sit down with the customer, whiteboard a solution and deliver a prototype in 90 days.
eDigest: What makes the NextLink antenna deployment special?
Sill: We’ve refined and honed the performance of the mid-band antennas. For NextLink, we used products that we had around for quite some time; however, over the last couple of years, we enhanced the performance and optimized the feed networks to increase the gain and improve the performance of the sidelobes to allow NextLink to enhance its LTE deployments.
The antennas have lateral-tilt built into them, which gives NextLink a better ability to optimize their networks.
eDigest: What was NextLink looking for in terms of an antenna solution?
Sill: They had been using a 5-GHz Cambium proprietary architecture, which we happen to have been working with them on, as well. Their systems were becoming heavily loaded, so they wanted to use the CBRS spectrum to augment their capacity. They chose LTE technology, and we stepped to work with them on the AW3161 antenna.
eDigest: What has the CBRS allocation meant to Alpha Wireless in general?
Sill: I’ve been personally evangelizing the CBRS for Alpha Wireless for two and a half years. Thus, a lot of upfront work is really starting to come through in the market space right now for solutions and applications in small cells and macro cell-type of deployments.
eDigest: How would you describe the demand for CBRS antennas?
Sill: We are seeing a 50-50 split between enterprises and carriers. We’re talking to different sectors that are wanting to leverage the spectrum.
We’re dealing with fixed wireless access companies that had been using 3.5 GHz as part of the Part 90 (unlicensed) rules and that now use the Part 96 (CBRS) rules. We’re seeing multiple system operators and mobile network operators looking at the spectrum. The big three public carriers are looking at it.
We’re seeing a lot of activity going on in the private enterprise side, even private farming networks getting stood up. We see a lot of activity going into warehousing and automation within facilities. Because of its power requirements, you get pretty good separation between in-building and outdoors. You don’t have that bleed-over into the buildings.
eDigest: How are antenna sectors evolving?
Sill: Verizon has been open about leveraging some of the CBRS spectrum to augment hotspot locations, and so they are looking at omnidirectional antennas for those. And then you also have a number of people looking at macro antenna solutions. Some want to do a 90-degree sector, a lot of them 65 degrees, because traditional LTE likes a 65-degree beam.
But then, when you get into higher-capacity locations, they’re starting to use narrower antennas, such as 33-degree beamwidth. We have just created a new product line that not only has vertical lobe suppression, but also side lobe suppression on the azimuth. This helps when you start doing six-sector arrays, because you’re minimizing the interference between adjacent sectors. We are getting ready to test the 33-degree antenna with NextLink, an antenna which will allow them to nearly double the capacity of a cell site.
Enterprises like a fully integrated radio-and-antenna combination because they can wall-mount them and focus the coverage into a tightly controlled area of the facility.