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Echo 5G unit
Pivotal Commware’s glass-attached Echo 5G unit picks up a millimeter-wave signal and boosts the signal for wireless customers. (Pivotal Commware Photo)

Pivotal Commware, the Kirkland, Wash.-based startup backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, says it’s demonstrated its solution to a wireless annoyance: getting 5G reception inside a building.

Millimeter-wave 5G signaling is the next wave in cellular technology, revving up data transfer speeds by an order of magnitude over 4G. The new wireless standard also promises to bring less lag time and wider bandwidth.

But deploying 5G also brings technical challenges: Because of the physics of high-frequency radio waves, the signal typically needs a boost on the subscriber side to provide connectivity inside the home.

Pivotal Commware’s strategy is to use a metamaterials-based technology called holographic beam forming to intercept and amplify the signal. Its Echo 5G repeater is designed to be attached to a window, without the need for external wiring or drilling through walls.

“By greatly improving building penetration and facilitating self-install, Pivotal’s Echo 5G improves the economics of 5G fixed wireless by allowing carriers to deliver superior service to more subscribers at less cost,” Pivotal CEO Brian Deutsch explained in a news release.

Today, Pivotal reported a successful field trial of the Echo 5G in a simulated home environment in a Kirkland neighborhood. The unit was affixed to a double-paned glass window and positioned at a 40-degree angle to a 5G base station, set up to simulate a distance of 1,640 feet, or a third of a mile. (The actual distance was 360 feet.)

The signal was sent at a 5G frequency of 28 GHz, using 4 x 100 MHz channels. When the Echo 5G was turned off, the network failed to connect. But when it was turned on, the connection allowed for WiFi-level throughput of 1.3 gigabits per second.

“Now wireless carriers can compete for over $100 billion in new revenue by serving broadband to homes and businesses,” Deutsch said. “Pivotal’s Echo 5G clears the biggest obstacle to seizing that opportunity.”

Pivotal Commware is one of several privately held startups that make use of metamaterials-based beamforming technologies pioneered at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash. The technology makes it possible for a flat-panel, software-defined antenna system to focus on a target without having to turn toward it physically.

A year ago, Pivotal raised $17 million in Series A funding from Gates and other investors, including  DIG InvestmentLux Capital, the family office of private equity investor Barry Sternlicht, and The Thermo Companies.

Other metamaterials-based spin-outs from Intellectual Ventures include Kymeta, which focuses on flat-panel satellite antennas; Echodyne, which builds radar systems suited for drones and connected cars; and Evolv, which is working on security scanning applications.

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