Sprint tests flying Magic Box

Sprint magic box aerial (Sprint)
Sprint and its partners created a lighter version of the Magic Box product and mounted it on the bottom of a drone. (Sprint)

Sprint decided it wanted to get more innovation out of its Magic Box, working a little magic of its own by combining it with drone technology.

Günther Ottendorfer (Sprint)
Sprint Technology COO Günther Ottendorfer

Magic Box, which is given free to Sprint customers who qualify, has proven to be a very useful product to get coverage where it’s needed, according to Günther Ottendorfer, COO of technology at Sprint. Then Sprint came up with another idea: use it for certain applications to provide coverage from the air.

Sprint formed a partnership with drone manufacturer CyPhy Works. They modified the power supply and created a light version of the Magic Box product and mounted it on the bottom of a drone.

Last week, Sprint put the revised Magic Box to the test as an aerial small cell solution in Midlothian, Texas, which is about 30 miles outside of Dallas. The aerial small cell is designed to be a rapidly deployable solution capable of extending Sprint’s 2.5 GHz data service initially up to 10 square miles. It can be used after natural disasters or for special events, like sports or concerts.

“It was very exciting for us to see how that would work and it worked very well,” Ottendorfer told FierceWirelessTech. “We lifted the Magic Box up in the air,” and it connected to a cell tower six miles away and delivered a connection to the ground. “It’s a good proof for us that the concept works.”

The Magic Box, introduced in May, is produced by small cell manufacturer Airspan and designed to improve coverage for Sprint customers. It’s not a simple repeater; what makes it unique is the LTE-Advanced User equipment (UE) Relay technology.

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According to Ottendorfer, UE Relay enables the Sprint Magic Box to create an ultraefficient connection to Sprint’s macro network using its 2.5 GHz or 1.9 GHz spectrum. Backhaul connections for traditional small cells typically use either fiber or a wireline internet connection, both of which require a physical cable—which is not exactly practical for reaching 400 feet up into the sky.

Because of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum, it is possible to wirelessly connect the flying small cell to a neighboring base station on one channel (in this case 6 miles away) and use another channel to provide coverage for customers.

Sprint Magic Box as an aerial solution connects wirelessly to a nearby Sprint cell site, COW (Cell on Wheels) or SatCOLT (Satellite Cell Site on Light Truck). All that’s needed is power, provided via local commercial service or a generator, Ottendorfer explained

The chipsets for the small cell are from Qualcomm Technologies for the base station portion of the small cell, and from GCT Semiconductor for the wireless backhaul.  

Sprint hasn’t said how many of the land-based Magic Boxes have been deployed, but it’s in the thousands. Sprint’s Magic Box supply currently is not keeping up with the demand.