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These Little Solar-Powered Boxes Will Mean You Always Have A Signal On Your Phone

Once these roll out, mobile dead zones in cities could soon be a thing of the past.

These Little Solar-Powered Boxes Will Mean You Always Have A Signal On Your Phone
[Top Illustration: Elesey via Shutterstock]

In the not-so-distant future, cities might be blanketed with solar-powered antennae sprouting off buildings, street posts, and billboards. The gadgets can fill in mobile dead zones block by block and simultaneously cut the carbon footprint of wireless networks.

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“One of the challenging things with wireless signals is really the building infrastructure,” says Thierry Klein, head of green research at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs. “The signal strength depends on obstacles that might be in its path.”

Mobile companies have wanted to install more small cells–wireless nodes that can boost signal strength–in cities for years, but the challenge has been the fact that they need to be wired to the power grid to run.

“That limits where you can deploy them or increases the cost, because you might need to do digging and trenching,” Klein says. “So we want our cells to be completely wireless. Because they’re solar powered, you can really deploy them anywhere you like, anywhere you need them.”

Technically, it would be possible to hook today’s small cells up to solar panels, but the solar panels would have to be big, making it both expensive and impractical. So the team at Bell Labs figured out how to dramatically shrink down the power usage of the cell itself. That meant the solar panel could be tiny.

“The solar panels are essentially invisible,” he says. “So small that it actually fits on the side of the equipment, and you’d barely notice it.” A smart controller harvests the energy and stores it for later use, and automatically turns off the cell when it isn’t needed.

Though researchers are just a working proof-of-concept now, the idea could easily be scaled up and installed throughout cities, where there are more tall buildings in the way and growing demand for cell coverage. “It might mostly be deployed in dense, urban, Manhattan-type areas,” Klein says.

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The new design makes it simple to quickly install–and more likely that we could all actually have working signals throughout a city. “We really think that if you can deploy them very easily, then there’s really no impediment to providing the capacity,” he says. “Right now one of the challenges is to deploy and install them. The time and cost of deployment.”

And it’s a way for telecoms to use a lot less energy; the new box uses around 10 times less power than a comparable system, and, of course, it runs on a renewable source. “It fits really well with the low power networking that we envision for the future,” Klein says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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