Coverage-extending HPUE products expected to be available soon, according to FirstNet Authority, AT&T officials
High-power user equipment (HPUE) that promises to almost double the coverage range for FirstNet subscribers using 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum is expected to be available within the next month, according to a FirstNet Authority official.
Mark Golaszewski, the director of applications for the FirstNet Authority, provided the timeline Thursday in response to a question from a FirstNet Authority board member about the status of HPUE devices being approved for use on the FirstNet network being built and maintained by AT&T.
“We’re looking at the first high-power user equipment, or HPUE, to be available—I think—in the next couple of weeks, or a month or so,” Golaszewski said during the FirstNet Authority board meeting, which was webcast. “That’s going through a certification process right now
“That’s a unique aspect of our Band 14 license that allows for high-power user equipment to be on to be on Band 14 spectrum. We expect the early deployment and availability of those devices in the marketplace to be likely in an in-vehicle router type of form factor. Those devices would allow for longer reach and—in effect—be a way of extending coverage on the uplink.”
AT&T confirmed the information about the HPUE rollout provided during the FirstNet Authority board meeting.
“We expect some equipment to be ready as early as that time frame, with other elements of the HPUE solution ready later this year,” according to a prepared statement provided by an AT&T spokesperson to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
While the 20 MHz of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum that is licensed to the FirstNet Authority—and being deployed by AT&T for a 25-year contract period—often has been lauded for its natural signal-propagation characteristics, the HPUE capability is what differentiates it significantly from other LTE airwaves in nearby bands.
Typical cellular devices transmit signals using a maximum of about 200 milliwatts of power. However, HPUE devices operating on Band 14 are permitted to transmit signals using 1.25 watts—six times the normal cellular power level—which greatly enhances the effective range for users.
Last August, AT&T announced that it is working with Assured Wireless to provide HPUE products that can be used on Band 14.
Bob LaRose, vice president of business development at HPUE maker Assured Wireless, has stated that HPUE effectively increases the range of a given cell sector by almost 80%. For an isolated cell site, this means that the total coverage area provided by the cell site would triple, given a consistent environment surrounding the cell site.
This performance gain promises to increase the effective coverage area, which would be particularly helpful in rural areas, where economic factors often limit the number of cell sites deployed. In addition, Assured Wireless CEO Tom Bilotta has noted that HPUE also can be used to improve signal strength in other challenging environments, such as in a basement parking garage, inside a building or inside a forest with significant foliage.
As with other cellular signals, HPUE devices do not radiate signals at maximum power under all conditions; the power level automatically is adjusted to ensure performance while saving battery life and to prevent harmful interference to other devices in the area.
Assured Wireless officials have stated that the company plans to make two types of HPUE products initially: a module that can be embedded in other products—for instance, an in-vehicle router—and a USB device that can be plugged into other devices to improved signal strength. About the size of a small smartphone, the Assured Wireless USB device will include its own power supply, so it will not impact the battery life of the host device, Bilotta has told IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
Officials for other vendors have expressed interest in HPUE, either by leveraging the Assured Wireless products or developing their own HPUE solutions.
To date, no vendor has announced a timeline to develop a handheld device with embedded HPUE functionality, although industry sources indicate that several vendors are investigating the possibility. One key challenge is the fact that an HPUE device operating a maximum power levels would exceed FCC safety limits for cellular devices that would be held close to the head of a user.
Many studying the issue have noted that the maximum HPUE power levels just a fraction of the 3-watt and 5-watt power levels found in many LMR devices used regularly by public safety.
Last August, Chris Sambar—AT&T’s senior vice president for the FirstNet program at the time, before he was promoted to AT&T’s executive vice president for technology and operations—describe HPUE as a “game changer.” In January, Jason Porter—Sambar’s successor as AT&T’s senior vice president for the FirstNet program—echoed this sentiment, telling IWCE’s Urgent Communications that AT&T is “excited where [HPUE] will go, based on the testing we have done.”
Such anticipation for HPUE is understandable. If HPUE products can deliver the promised performance gains, the implications could be significant for FirstNet adoption by public-safety entities.
AT&T recently announced that FirstNet is providing more than 1.2 million connections to more than 10,000 public-safety agencies, but officials surrounding the FirstNet initiative have acknowledged that those figures would be larger if not for a perception that the LTE coverage for FirstNet—using AT&T’s radio access network, as well as the carrier’s commercial spectrum—is inferior to the coverage provided by Verizon.
This perception also has been fueled, in part, by repeated Verizon statements that Verizon has a 450,000-square-mile LTE coverage advantage nationwide over any other carrier—a claim made as recently as last month in a press release posted on Verizon’s web site.
But recent figures released by both carriers and third-party sources indicate that Verizon’s LTE coverage advantage has narrowed to 70,000 square miles. If FirstNet subscribers are able to realize the performance gains from HPUE on the outskirts of AT&T’s network, that effective coverage gap presumably would narrow further, if not disappear entirely. AT&T has not responded yet to requests from IWCE’s Urgent Communications to quantify the potential nationwide coverage impact of HPUE in this manner.