The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and University of Denver students are gearing up to pilot new technology aimed at closing cellular coverage gaps along freeways.
“There are pockets of high ground, low valleys, [so] cell service can’t go everywhere,” said Bob Fifer, deputy director of operations for CDOT.
That point was brought home last year when heavy rain left debris in Glenwood Canyon, about two and a half hours west of Denver, blocking Interstate 70.
“In that canyon, the only thing we had in there was radios,” Fifer said. “The radios were working fine, but … our fiber optics were destroyed in the canyon, so we had intermittent communication issues,” he said. Additionally, responders were unable to share photos and videos to provide full situational awareness, which put them and other officials at a disadvantage as they attempted to reopen the affected stretch of road. .
We believed that “if you could create some sort of private type communication network that allows our first responders and our CDOT people to at least have communication with each other…then we would have a backup,” said Fifer.
The pilot will examine how a “network in a box” – or in a backpack or in a vehicle – could help in future incidents. The technology comes from Eucast Global, a company moving to Denver after parting ways with its South Korean founder, Eucast Co.
Housed in a metal case, the base station requires a power source and a broadband connection via fiber optic, satellite or cell tower. Once turned on, the base station or back unit creates a private LTE, 4G, or 5G network that anyone who connects to that base station can use to communicate. Multiple base stations can be connected to extend coverage.
In the case of CDOT, workers in a no-signal area would connect the base station to state fiber as a backhaul and broadcast signal to allow people to access the internet, Chris Medina said, who sits on the board of directors of Eucast Global.
Base stations “connect to the very last mile of fiber that was installed there and literally daisy-chain to where the coverage needs to be, covering a mile, 2 miles, depending on the terrain,” Medina said. , who is also co-founder and chief strategy officer at Clovity, a software and IT services company that develops proprietary Internet of Things software. “Obviously flat ground is going to give you a bit more distance and reach. One with a bit more treacherous ground, you would strategically place them where they can overlap.
If none of these backhauls are present, the CDOT could use the backpack version available out of the box or a vehicle-powered car unit. Someone turns it on and anyone who subscribes to it can communicate, Medina said.
Each network can handle approximately 200 concurrent users, but if not all 200 are actively using the network, the technology can dynamically load balance to ensure users can continue. If more people need to connect, more base stations can be added.
“He has seamless mobility. This means that, as long as it overlaps, one base station tells the other that “I’m on my way, I’m going in this direction”. Don’t cut the call, don’t have lag. It connects as you go, so you always stay connected,” Medina said.
Fifer said CDOT will deploy two or three base stations near Bayfield in an area just east of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels where there are 3 to 5 miles of dead zone. If the technology isn’t in place by November, he said testing would likely begin next spring, after the busy winter season.
He wants the tests to last a year. “You have all kinds of different environmental impacts that happen over the course of a year: weather, high temperatures, cold temperatures, solar flares,” he said. “You have all sorts of different things to see how stable this system is.”
To go deeper into Eucast technology, Fifer said he will have to see two things. First, dual-SIM smartphones should be able to switch to the private network — which it calls CDOT LTE — and then back out of it, and network users should be able to call people who aren’t connected to it.
“If it doesn’t work at all, obviously we’re not interested because I’m just trying to create carrier-neutral coverage for basically government employees who have to work in this area,” Fifer said.
If it works, he views Eucast as a temporary solution until one of the three major carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon — can move into unserved areas.
“For me, FirstNet is the one that solves these first responder networks, so I’m not trying to compete or even suggest competing with FirstNet,” he added. “It’s more [like access for the] little spots that could temporarily – it could be one, two, 10 years – cover cellular for first responders who have the program to access LTE.
Meanwhile, the company is continuing its own tests, including a network in a box attached to a drone, which, without ground obstructions, could reach further than the 2 miles of other systems. This solution should be available in the third quarter of 2023, said Gary Sumihiro, CEO of Sumihiro Investments, which helped bring Eucast to the United States.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.