Flaky network hobbling your phone at the game or hotel? Freed-up airwaves could help

Ruckus Wireless has some big-name allies for its push to get better wireless coverage at hotels, stadiums and universities.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Heavy network loads at stadiums can often mean delays and disruptions uploading your smartphone photos or making a call.

Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis

It always happens at the worst possible time. Right when you're about to fire off a critical email, the number of bars on your phone takes a sudden dip.

Chances are, you're in a crowded, public place like a hotel lobby or sporting arena. That's where, despite what your carrier promises, coverage can get spotty and the sheer volume of people using their phones means you're fighting through a data traffic jam.

Now six companies -- Google, Intel, Qualcomm, Ruckus Wireless, Federated Wireless and Nokia -- want to tap into newly freed airwaves to help your phone better connect to the cellular network in areas where coverage remains a problem.

At the Mobile World Congress tech show in Barcelona, Spain, next week, Ruckus Wireless and Qualcomm plan to show a technology they're calling OpenG that will offer a new way for phones to connect to mobile networks. OpenG network devices -- either a collection of small wireless access points scattered inside a building or a single more powerful one built outside -- will give universities, stadiums and hotels a bridge to the mobile networks operated by companies like Verizon and AT&T.

The technology could help shore up a weak spot in today's high-tech world. We use our phones to share photos, watch videos, talk to friends and check email. But the fun is spoiled when network connections are spotty and data transfer is slow. Ruckus' OpenG plan is geared to fix that, especially in the congested areas where crowds make connections so flaky and behind walls that weaken radio waves.

Ruckus Wireless, a specialist in industrial-strength Wi-Fi, is among​ those hoping to profit from the opening of new airwaves for wireless networks.

Ruckus Wireless, a specialist in industrial-strength Wi-Fi, is among those hoping to profit from the opening of new airwaves for wireless networks.

Ruckus Wireless

"Over 75 percent of today's global mobile data traffic is generated indoors, and the majority of customer complaints come from those indoor users," said Chris Stark, head of North America business development for network equipment maker Nokia, in a statement.

How does it work? By building a new network in the 3.5GHz radio spectrum, a slice of the US airwaves called CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) that the Federal Communications Commission freed in 2015 for small geographic areas. The 3.5GHz band is used by the military, but the FCC approved a plan to let some companies tap into it for areas about the size of a city block in urban areas.

Ruckus, based in Sunnyvale, California, already sells advanced Wi-Fi data services for big customers. OpenG would augment the mobile phone network instead so people can also make calls. It employs the same LTE network technology that all four of today's major US carriers use today for fast 4G connections, said Juan Santiago, manager of the product. But where traditional mobile phone base stations only work with a single carrier, an OpenG network works with all of them.

One big hitch with Ruckus' plan is that phones must support communications on the 3.5GHz band. That's a problem, since reaching new airwaves requires new radio electronics that increase a phone's cost, and you'd have to buy a new phone to take advantage of this technology. But Ruckus is working with Qualcomm, a key maker of chips for phones, to help spur support for 3.5GHz, Santiago said. Intel, Nokia, and Google also are powerful allies.

Part of the service fee Ruckus plans to charge for OpenG covers the back-end connection to the carriers' networks. While that adds an expense for a hotel or stadium, those venues can potentially work out agreements with carriers that'll pay to have their network loads lightened at heavily used areas. And for a hotel, where businesspeople have to get work done, investing in reliable phone service can be worthwhile, Santiago said.

Already, good Wi-Fi is crucial, and people now demand phone service, too.

"They're saying if there's not good cell phone coverage -- if they're sitting in conference area and don't have coverage -- they won't come back next year," he said.