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With Its Small, Cheap Repeaters, Pivotal Is the Partner Verizon Needs for Citywide 5G


Verizon’s ultra-fast 5G has a real estate problem. Pivotal Commware may have the solution.

Millimeter-wave “ultra wideband” 5G is very fast and has huge bandwidth. It’s the only kind of 5G Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg wanted to talk about in his CES keynote this week; I didn’t hear him mention his company’s “nationwide” 5G. But it’s very short range, to the point where Verizon has to put a panel every 1,500 feet or less to establish in-city coverage. And the technology doesn’t penetrate walls well, so it mostly runs straight up and down streets rather than around buildings.

Two years into Verizon’s UWB rollout, citywide coverage, even in Verizon’s initial launch cities, is still a dream. Take a look at Chicago, one of Verizon’s showcase cities. According to Verizon’s coverage map, outside the neighborhoods closest to downtown, UWB coverage is sparse on residential streets, even in dense, multifamily neighborhoods.

Verizon Chicago coverage

(Even in this dense part of Chicago, Verizon has had trouble extending coverage along residential streets.)

That’s because of the “truck roll”—wireless-industry speak for the painful process of getting trucks and cranes into place, setting up base stations, and attaching fiber and power, which is tougher on side streets than on avenues.

Pivotal Commware, which announced its partnership with Verizon in June, can make those installations easier and less expensive, and thus improve Verizon’s coverage. It has two gadgets to deploy: the Pivot, a repeater the size of “two lunch boxes,” says Pivotal CEO Brian Deutsch, which can double the range of a millimeter-wave cell site; and the Echo, a “puck” that 5G subscribers can slap onto their window to get the signal indoors.

“We can take, in essence, 70% of the cost off the table, and we can take a year off the table,” Deutsch says.

Installing a base station takes power, fiber, and most of all, landlord permission and permits. In cities like Chicago—where Verizon has permission to put its base stations on light poles—permits can be streamlined. But in New York, for instance, Verizon tends to negotiate with individual landlords to plant panels on low-rise building roofs.

Pivotal Commware Pivot

(The Pivot)

The Pivot takes 20 minutes to install, costs “a few thousand bucks” and doesn’t need any fiber, Deutsch says.

“It was amazing because it was a learning experience for the network operator and the power company,” he says. “They’re like, all right, so where are you going to drag the fiber from? And I said, we’re not going to do that. They said, what’s the wind load? It weighs like two pounds. The guys from the power company were like, dude, I can’t even put a meter on it [because it doesn’t use enough power.]”


Beaming 5G to You

Millimeter-wave networks are heavily dependent on beamforming. Because the waves are so weak and fragile (part of why anti-mmWave conspiracy theories are so silly), they can’t be broadcast willy-nilly the way lower frequencies can. Instead, beams must be focused and pointed at the individual devices connected to the network. Advancing mmWave range and quality often involves better forms of beamforming.

Pivotal has a key one: holographic beamforming, which borrows from the techniques used for optical holography to prevent millimeter waves from getting scattered into space. Holographic beamforming kits are much smaller, lighter, and consume less power than other beamforming techniques like massive MIMO and phased arrays, Deutsch says, making Pivotal’s repeaters much cheaper and easier to install than other millimeter-wave base stations.

They’re also repeaters, so you don’t have to run fiber to them. A repeater can’t replace a base station in a congested area. It’s still reliant on the core internet connection from the base station it’s linked to, so if that fiber saturates, everybody slows down. But it can extend base-station range when there aren’t very many people connected to each base station, which is the situation in most millimeter-wave coverage areas now. The repeaters’ management software tells Verizon which devices are being heavily used, so Verizon can know where to lay in more actual base stations with more fiber.

Verizon’s up to 800MHz of millimeter-wave spectrum right now has a ridiculous amount of available bandwidth, so it can be used both for content delivery and for backhaul.

“Instead of replicating base stations everywhere, you have 10GB of throughput within one of those beams—allocate that as a backhaul beam, and hub-and-spoke that signal around,” Deutsch says.

Pivotal Commware Echo

The Echo.

Holographic beamforming can also help millimeter waves penetrate walls, a big problem for Verizon’s current UWB system. Standard cellular boosters, such as the ones made by Wilson Electronics and SureCall, can’t handle millimeter-wave. Pivotal’s Echo slaps onto a window and offers 75-80dB of gain (similar to one of those commercial low-band boosters), then distributes it within your home or office with about a 100- to 150-foot range.

This is different from a home 5G modem, which uses a relatively big box that sits inside or outside your window and translates 5G signal into Wi-Fi. The Echo lets people use their phones on Verizon’s existing 5G network; think about it as 5G enabling restaurants, small businesses, and building lobbies as much as homes and apartments.

Consumers won’t be able to buy Pivots or Echoes; they’re part of Verizon’s network rollout. They’re currently in engineering trials, and consumers will be on them later this year, Deutsch says. You’ll probably know when you see a dramatic expansion of UWB coverage in your city.


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