Troubleshooting RF Problems: Fluke Launches Smart New Tool

Tools for analyzing in-building cell signals have been clunky and complex, but Fluke's AirMagnet Spectrum ES makes the job much easier.

September 17, 2013

3 Min Read
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Wireless admins frequently get the call when anything radio-related comes up in the enterprise. Given the proliferation of mobile devices in the wireless space, I've had to both quantify and remedy poor cell signal coverage on a number of occasions, because...well, I’m the wireless guy. In-building cellular signals can be a bear to accurately quantify.

The problem has been that traditional analysis tools for mobile networks tend to be bulky, expensive, or both. They also tend to require fairly specialized skills, often requiring specialists from RF systems integrators or the carriers themselves to run. I learned to operate high-end spectrum analyzers back in my military days working in avionics, and know how difficult is for the uninitiated to have a clue what goes on with cell signals from various carriers in a given building.

Fluke Networks' AirMagnet Spectrum ES changes the paradigm, and opens up mobile spectrum support to a far wider group of techies. I know my more RF-savvy WLAN admin colleagues are going to immediately see the value, as will system integrators and anyone who works with in-building cellular systems. The new product expands the reach of Fluke Networks' AirMagnet WLAN tools, which have become mainstays in the WLAN admin toolbox, beyond supporting signals analysis in the Wi-Fi bands.

Whether the task is to gather data on poor signal quality to build a case for the likes of AT&T or Verizon to fix their own problems on your premises, or to help with the installation and upkeep of your distributed antenna systems, Spectrum ES brings the same intuitive interface used in Fluke's AirMagnet WLAN products to the otherwise murky carrier spectrum in a slim, USB-powered dongle that is packed with capabilities. With a frequency range between 698 MHz and 2.7 GHz, Spectrum ES covers 2G/3G/4G and public safety bands, and can be operated from a lightweight Windows tablet or laptop.

[Read how tracking down problems in wireless networks sometimes requires dealing with wires and other physical components in "Troubleshooting Wires In Wireless Networks."]

Unlike Wi-Fi that lives on fixed frequencies, the cellular spectrum plan is all over the place, and varies greatly by geographic location. Spectrum ES makes short work of enabling the right views for your location, by integrating with the FCC’s databases (the Holy Grail of frequency locations, owners and supporting technologies). So if I want to look at Verizon’s 4G spectrum in Syracuse, there’s no need to manually search for frequencies. Beyond basic “frequency versus power” spectrum analysis duties, Spectrum ES calls out jammers and interference by type, and provides a slick utility that will help you pinpoint the offending source transmitter.

At around $6,000, Spectrum ES is about one-fourth the cost of the last “real” spectrum analyzer I bought, yet is an order of magnitude more practical. System integrators and maintenance managers for the mobile carriers are likely to agree. Plus, the ability to put more test equipment in the field means jobs get done faster because there will be less waiting for costly tools to get shipped between sites. Smaller and lighter tools are always welcome, especially when you have to lug them around for hours.

The mobile and WLAN sides of the wireless world are getting ever more entangled. Carriers are looking for Wi-Fi offload opportunities, WLAN vendors are marrying access points up to carrier “small cells” or using LTE for backhaul to their access points, and the in-building cellular market is growing. It’s nice to see tools evolve with this industry trend.

[Learn about common problems that can affect WLAN performance, including troublesome client behaviors, IPv4/IPv6 issues and ISP problems in Lee Badman's session, "When Users Think Your Good WLAN Is Bad" at Interop New York Sept. 30-Oct. 4. Register today!]

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