And That’s Why 5G Cellular Repeaters Might Take Forever

Fred Harding says the FCC’s auction of 600 MHz spectrum portends a long, capricious road ahead for 5G peripherals like cellphone repeaters.

Fred Harding
And That’s Why 5G Cellular Repeaters Might Take Forever

The FCC auctioned off a swath of 600 MHz spectrum occupied by wireless microphones. Ergo, the fate of cellphone boosters is up in the air. Huh?

Telecom guru Fred Harding of Capitol Sales sent me another fine story for CE Pro. I started combing through it, and it seemed simple enough – 5G, the transition from 4G, the confusing claims, yada yada. A nice primer, so I thought, but he originally titled the piece, “5G Cell Repeating Considerations.”

I wasn’t seeing anything about 5G cell repeaters. I didn’t get it. Until I got to the end of the “primer.” Fred buries the lead, but it all comes together in the end, and you will ultimately learn why 5G cell repeaters are likely to remain in limbo for some time. – Julie Jacobson

Where We are with 5G … and Not with Cellphone Repeaters

The cellphone business is going to go through a change within the next year or so. 5G is looming, and there are a number of things to be informed about. First, the good news …

More Bandwidth, Faster Speeds, Lower Latency


First, 5G is a bigger number than 4G, so it must be better, right? Yes, indeed. Your mileage may vary on some of these specifications due to proximity to towers, construction of buildings, quality of receiving devices, but here’s some of the things to know.

  1. 5G is capable of moving 1,000 times the data of 4G
  2. It’s got higher speed, too — about 100 times the speed of 4G
  3. It’s capable of supporting 100 times as many devices as 4G systems
  4. It’s markedly faster with lower latency than 4G. A two-hour motion picture will download in about six minutes over a 4G network. With an optimally delivered 5G signal, the download takes just over 3.5 seconds.

Based on the evidence, we can all agree it’s a faster, more robust service.

The Long, Slow Replacement Cycle

But there are several things to consider.

First, cell phone technology requires that you have 1) a cell tower to radiate signals across an area and 2) a cell phone with the appropriate chipset to communicate with the tower.

5G will necessitate replacing hardware in both cell towers and phones.

Cell-tower upgrades aren’t cheap or easy, so the rollout will be slow and laborious. Naturally, the areas with the densest populations will get their upgrades first. A town of 119 people may not have an updated tower as soon as Chicago.

For that reason, you’re going to find that new cell phones will need to operate on both 4G and 5G services.

4G users, though, won’t be stranded. The FCC has mandated that 4G service be simulcast along with 5G, as the idea of telling the world that their older phone no longer works is not a popular idea. So that old flip phone will still work as nicely as it did before.

‘Evolving’ Products

This being the electronics business, some service providers are marketing their products as evolving. That sounds pretty good, right?

AT&T is touting something called 5GE. No, the “E” doesn’t stand for Extreme or some other “better” version of 5G. Quite the contrary.

What they’re doing, essentially, is aggregating multiple frequencies using the 4G format to up the speed. It may be better than 4G but it’s not at the level of 5G, unfortunately.

The confusion has only just begun. 4K all over again.

What's Mics Got to Do with It?

The FCC is of course a major player in this rollout. It’s their job, after all. Remember the “frequency auctions” a couple of years ago? That’s when the Commission sold off a section of the RF band in the 600 MHz range.

One big user of this band was the wireless-microphone industry, which would see “their” spectrum sold to the highest bidders, as I wrote in a March 2018 blog, “Revisit All Your Mic and Communications Installs: FCC Auctions Could Kill Them.

Companies like Shure and Sennheiser kicked and screamed, but they offered rebates for folks with legacy gear who bought replacements operating in the new spectrum. That’s pretty much done now, from what I’ve been able to find in my investigations.

It was nice that microphone manufacturers did that, but that’s not the moral of the story. The real story is that the FCC is trying to regulate who can do what with what in which radio band.

And since standards haven’t been standardized yet, ancillary equipment like cell phone repeaters can’t be brought to market.

The implications for those who install cellphone repeating systems are clear: Until the FCC approves devices that can operate in the new, lower-frequency band, 5G repeating won’t happen.

It’s important to note that not all 5G service providers will operate in that 600 MHz band. T-Mobile is the company that bought access to that band, so they’ll be using it. Others? Not sure.

Which Brings us to Cellphone Repeaters

With that background, the idea of cell phone repeaters needs examination.

The concept behind a repeating system is straight forward: there’s an external antenna outside of the premises that’s pointed at the service provider’s cell tower. A length of coax goes to an amplifier inside the structure, and from there, the signal goes to an antenna to rebroadcast the signal. A variety of amplifiers are made to support different-sized facilities: A 100,000-square-foot commercial space clearly needs more power than a 3,000-square-foot home.

And so the final part of the discussion regarding 5G repeating is dependent on the FCC approving the technology to support it. 

Repeaters make sense when you consider that RF signals can be shielded by materials with a high water content like brick or cement, metal or metal lath, or thermally insulated windows, to name a few. Often, the cell phone is on a lower floor, and the signal has to penetrate multiple layers of shielding. By placing the receiving antenna outside the shield, high above the ground, you’re increasing the signal strength received before amplification.

With 5G looming, will customers with existing systems need to replace equipment? Yes and no, essentially. Since there will be concurrent 4G broadcasts, it’s clear that as long as those broadcasts occur, your customer with the snappy new phone will still get some signal. It won’t necessarily be as fast, but it will still work at the same level as what they are used to today.

The consensus among industry insiders is that it’ll be about 2030 before 4G disappears, which should be enough time for all the flip phones in the world to get lost in the sofa.

And so the final part of the discussion regarding 5G repeating is dependent on the FCC approving the technology to support it. At that time, it likely will require replacing amplifiers, and potentially both indoor and outdoor antennas. We’ll see.