BYU staff helps invent Wi-Fi extending technology

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BYU’s Phil Lundrigan, Washington University’s Neal Patwari, and the University of Utah’s Sneha Kasera invented a way to extend the range of Wi-Fi with only a software update. (Preston Crawley)

A team of engineers invented a new way to extend the range of your Wi-Fi with only a software upgrade. The information was presented at MobiCom 2019, a technology convention located in Los Cabos, Mexico. 

The team consisted of BYU’s Phil Lundrigan, Washington University’s Neal Patwari, and the University of Utah’s Sneha Kasera. The team workshopped the idea for over a year.

Extending Wi-Fi has typically been a hardware issue, and companies have used extension antennas, receivers, high-end routers and other methods to try to lengthen the range of Wi-Fi. Using a software patch to extend a Wi-Fi signal was virtually unheard of until this year. 

Lundrigan used an analogy to explain how the technology worked by using a different way of communicating signals.

If you and your friend are talking across a big room, and you keep backing away from each other, there’s a point of distance where you can’t hear what your friend saying. You can hear that your friend is talking, but you can’t decipher every single word. Still, you can tell when your friend is talking and when they are not.

“That is how our invention works,” Lundrigan said. “The software can’t hear all the specifics of the messages the access point is sending it, but it doesn’t listen to the words. Instead, the software is interpreting the pattern by which that friend would talk. Talking and pausing.”

Lundrigan said that the on and off patterns encode data, a bit like morse code.

“So that’s what we’re doing with Wi-Fi,” Lundrigan said. “We are sending it out in a special pattern so the receiver can interpret the patterns that are being sent to it. It’s a different method that Wi-Fi can exist off of at longer ranges instead of how it normally operates, having to interpret every word to stay alive.”

He described this technology as a way for the Wi-Fi to communicate long-range using signals to establish that it is still alive and not disconnected.

“If there is a spot in your home where a sensor doesn’t work, this type of communication can help your signal extend that far,” Lundrigan said.

Patwari said they hoped that in the near term more Wi-Fi networks would be able to automatically diagnose problems.

“In smart homes with many devices, people don’t want to be constantly solving networking problems,” Patwari said. He said that for many devices, the Wi-Fi extending software allows a person to simply wait, without having to troubleshoot, knowing that the technology is communicating correctly and will correct itself.

Lundrigan said that the invention can be used for other home purposes that currently aren’t serviced for Wi-Fi, like air sensors and motion sensors.

“This discovery is something on the edge of connectivity,” Lundrigan said. “If your Wi-Fi isn’t great in your garage, that would be a great application for this and other home automation. This software enables your Wi-Fi to send data a long distance to any motion sensor.”

After the conference, Lundrigan provided advice to students on campus who may be trying to develop an invention.

“Keep going at it. It took a long time,” Lundrigan said. “We had the idea — in theory, it could work — but putting it in practice was hard.”

Lundrigan and his team elaborated that they conducted many experiments outside. At one point, they were doing tests outside in the freezing cold, and the team wanted to give up but stayed vigilant for a breakthrough in research.

“The key for innovators on or off-campus is to really understand a problem,” Patwari said. “If you know the problem, you can see what might and might not fix it; you have a great, unique perspective for fixing it.”

The team members say they are optimistic about the technology’s application to other avenues of Wi-Fi technology.

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