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NEPR Covers Research of ECE Doctoral Student Chris Merola on More Efficient Cell Towers for Cellular Networks

Christopher Merola

Christopher Merola

In early October Lindsey McGinnis of New England Public Radio reported on the pioneering research of Electrical and Computer Engineering doctoral student Chris Merola, who is trying to create much more efficient cell towers to service the sonic boom in cellular networks. “Americans' wireless data consumption has skyrocketed since 4G technology was introduced nearly a decade ago,” wrote McGinnis. “Smartphones have become essential for on-the-go work and entertainment, fueling the need for 5G. But how do you create a cellular network that accommodates everything from streaming services to self-driving cars?”

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As McGinnis continued, the answer may lie in the basement of a UMass Amherst laboratory. That's where Merola is trying to create more efficient cell towers. In the lab, Merola uses a special, foam-covered chamber to test a prototype for the California-based start-up Cohere Technologies.

“That big dome is a lens antenna,” Merola said, gesturing toward the device. “There are a couple of different squares [on the back], so each one of those is an antenna.”

McGinnis explained that Merola's design is an example of Massive MIMO technology, short for multiple input, multiple output. Traditional cell towers spread data outward in a single, 360-degree blob. This watermelon-sized prototype splits the data into several narrow beams that broadcast independently.

According to the NEPR article, multi-beam antennas have been used in the past for defense applications, but are just getting their start in commercial telecom. You might have seen them used in certain sports stadiums. Clustered on top of a pole, this system would do the work of dozens of normal antennas, increasing available bandwidth.

“If you have more bandwidth, you can push more data through it,” Merola said. “Everyone can stream their videos, or do whatever we will be doing in 10 or 20 years, with our phones or devices or immersive virtual realities.”

Read the whole very informative article to get an overview of what Merola and other researchers are doing to beam us into the future of cellular networks and towers. (November 2018)