Source: Chicago Tribune
By: Meg Graham
5 February 2016
Once upon a time, when the Red or Blue line L trains dropped underground, so did our phone calls.
But Lisle-based ExteNet Systems has completed a project to extend 4G LTE service in the CTA tunnels — taking subterranean Snapchats from dream to reality. The company, founded by CEO Ross Manire in 2002, worked with contractor Aldridge Electric and four national wireless carriers to complete the network.
ExteNet, which creates multi-carrier shared networks to improve wireless coverage and capacity in low-signal areas, has built networks in Trump Tower and the Empire State Building. The company has also been installing “small cells,” or radio access nodes, in downtown San Francisco in preparation for Super Bowl crowds this weekend.
The company reached “unicorn” status late last year, becoming one of the rare privately held companies with a valuation of more than $1 billion, when it completed a $1.4 billion capital restructuring. It employs 200 and hopes to hire 50 to 75 this year, Manire said. Blue Sky spoke to Manire about the company’s recent projects.
Q. ExteNet completed the CTA project late last year. What did that entail?
A. We ended up lighting up 21 underground stations and 22 miles of tunnels. It’s a really interesting and challenging project, as you can imagine. Our guys all had to be certified to work around the rails, and we had to find unique locations to put the equipment in the system.
Aldridge Electric had a train car that allowed them to very rapidly attach brackets and the antenna system we pull through the tunnel. We were able to do this very fast, because you’re only allowed to work in the tunnels for a very short amount of time.
Q. Have you tried it?
A. I have — and it worked. I was texting, I was emailing people, I went on the Internet. I could surf the web and pull up video and pictures and what I would call high-bitrate type activity. It all worked fine.
Q. You’re also working on getting the city of San Francisco hooked up before the Super Bowl this weekend.
A. We’re doing about 400 node locations throughout the city. There will be a million visitors that will come to the city of San Francisco as part of the festivities surrounding the Super Bowl. This will be probably one of our biggest builds we’ve ever done.
We’ll still be building more nodes after the Super Bowl is over with, and we hope that other carriers will also be joining that network as well.
Q. Why is it exactly that we have such terrible connectivity in high-volume areas, and how does ExteNet’s infrastructure fix that?
A. There are two components to this. One is the capacity of the individual radio itself. But there’s also the limitation on the capacity in the spectrum that you have in an area. If I put a cell tower in a location, and then all of a sudden I have thousands and thousands of people trying to connect to that cell tower, I run out of capacity in that area.
Rather than adding another tower, think about using small cells on telephone poles and street lights and traffic lights. I’m adding a lot of capacity, I’m getting more efficient frequency reuse of the spectrum and thereby I’m able to accommodate a lot more traffic in a very dense area.
Q. What’s the goal of building these networks everywhere?
A. People want to have this ubiquitous connectivity, and there’s a lot more that needs to be built in order to accommodate that. I think that’s the ultimate goal: That you would never lose connectivity, no matter where you were. We’re not there yet, it’s going to be a long time before we are there, but that’s the direction everybody is going.