UBCO researchers improve cell service by using 'smart' surfaces

UBCO boosts connectivity

Researchers at the University of British Columbia are looking for ways to improve wireless communications using smart surfaces to improve network sensing abilities.

The goal, says Dr. Anas Chaaban assistant professor at UBCO's School of Engineering, is to improve wireless services for millions of Canadians. Right now there are more than 12,000 wireless antenna towers and yet, a lack of cell service is a common problem.

Dr. Chaaban says the focus is on using "smart" surfaces that can bounce signals from a tower to customers to improve the link. A smart surface involves installing reflective elements on windows or panels on buildings in dense urban environments.

“The increasing use of mobile technologies across the world is necessitating research that unlocks potential new approaches within our existing infrastructure,” says Dr. Chaaban. “Even though cellphone towers line the rooftops of major cities, and handle the data and phone traffic of millions of Canadians each day, there are still gaps in service.”

Dr. Chaaban and his team at UBCO’s Communication Theory Lab have developed transmission schemes that would incorporate these so-called "smart" surfaces throughout urban centres to serve as reflectors within existing wireless networks.

A reconfigurable intelligent surface, or RIS, is a panel of many individual reflective elements, each of which can modify an incoming signal and reflect it. This modification can be controlled with an electrical signal, which enables the RIS to improve the connection or generate signals that are useful for locating users in the network.

Researchers have developed a new system where RIS can work as a satellite to improve accuracy. "By making a surface smart, it can bounce signals to cell phones which in turn can use these signals to generate an accurate estimate of location says, "Dr. Chaaban.

“Users never expect to have a call drop, and they also expect lightning-fast data speeds,” he says. “But to accomplish this, the networks require constant updating.”

So far tests have shown that RIS-enabled transmission schemes outperform existing schemes.

“We simulated the proposed localization protocol and demonstrated its effectiveness in an urban micro-cell street canyon scenario as an example,” says Dr. Chaaban. “The protocol works for multiple users simultaneously. Even in areas with intermittent service, data can be shared and users can be located and enjoy a reliable connection.”

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