In today's mobility-dependent world good in-building mobile coverage is essential, but it can't be left to the operators and it shouldn't be an afterthought when buildings are being planned, says Matt Melester
Over the last several years, wireless operators have focused on covering the largest public access venues - stadiums, arenas and airports-with cellular services. In these types of venues, it's all about providing high network capacity to a high concentration of subscribers. In US football stadiums, for example, some operators have deployed distributed antenna systems (DAS) with over 60 sectors for each frequency band. This design delivers plenty of capacity to fans for watching video replays and using other data-intensive applications. Future upgrades for adding more capacity and frequency bands will likely be necessary, but solid foundations for wireless are in place there.
The next frontier for indoor wireless is the mid- and large-size enterprise buildings - office complexes, high-rise apartments and commercial buildings - that are typically privately owned. The challenges of deploying wireless in private access venues are significantly different from those posed by stadiums in terms of the customers and channels involved, as well as the technical requirements. The most significant difference is the operators' willingness, or lack thereof, to fund these systems.
Operators recognized they needed to invest in wireless for large public venues because their subscribers demanded service there. But the return on investment for private enterprises is less certain. As such, operator willingness to fund in-building wireless in private enterprises is not as strong, particularly as they pursue other investments such as new spectrum, acquisitions and network virtualization.
As a result, enterprises will likely need to invest in the equipment themselves. This is a much different model, and overall there is no consistent process to help the enterprise acquire and deploy a system successfully. Even if an enterprise is willing to fund a system, an operator has to provide the radio and backhaul to their network. The process for getting approval from one operator to another is different, making the situation daunting and confusing for many enterprises.
More challenging than Wi-Fi
Remember, we are generally dealing with IT organizations in private enterprises, not RF managers from the major network operators who are intimately familiar with cellular communications. A significant barrier of ignorance stands between these worlds. Enterprises typically have little to no understanding of cellular. They want it be no more complicated than Wi-Fi '“ and unfortunately, it generally is more complicated. The IT installation companies they deal with are probably themselves only slightly more knowledgeable about cellular.
To remedy this barrier to in-building wireless in the enterprise space, vendors need to provide wireless systems that look and act more like the infrastructure that IT managers know. Many vendors like CommScope are doing exactly that. DAS continues to be enhanced to better meet the needs of commercial buildings. Small cells offer a great alternative for cost-effective coverage for enterprises, particularly for single operator applications with a limited number of frequency bands. Managing interference inside buildings can be challenging, but newer solutions address this issue. For this reason, CommScope recently acquired Airvana to supplement our offering to enterprises.
The key stakeholders in the enterprise need to undergo a bit of a mindset change, too. Recent research commissioned by CommScope found that only about half (56 percent) of building managers, facilities managers, real estate managers and architects always consider mobile connectivity for a building's tenants as a factor when working on projects. However, three quarters (73 percent) of respondents cited it as an 'important' or 'very important' factor.
Wireless should start with the architect
There is a disconnect here. Building owners and managers have to ensure that tenants are always connected in today's increasingly mobile, data-intensive era, and that buildings are future-proofed for tomorrow. Better planning for indoor wireless networks, even from the time buildings are being constructed, would help ensure adequate wireless coverage and capacity. Deployment in the building construction phase can avoid significant disruption to tenants when systems are added after-the-fact. This can also save on the considerable cost involved in building retrofits. The sooner architects, building owners and managers start planning for wireless, the easier it is to deliver high quality, high bandwidth networks.
In 2016, we expect to see more enterprises start to invest in their wireless systems. These early adopters will lead the evolution to a new model where building owners and IT managers take the lead in buying and deploying in-building wireless solutions. DAS and small cells will continue to evolve to support this important market segment. The needs of mobile users in commercial spaces are too great to ignore. The paradigm shift to new funding models and ways of thinking about wireless systems is already underway in North America. The evolution of in-building wireless will continue in 2016 and eventually carry over to all regions. CommScope will continue to develop innovative solutions to address the changing marketplace.
About the author
Matt Melester is SVP & general manager, Distributed Coverage & Capacity Solutions with CommScope.