Don’t Wait Until it’s Too Late: Pre-Wire for Cellular and Public-Safety In-Building Wireless (IBW) Coverage

Don’t Wait Until it’s Too Late: Pre-Wire for Cellular and Public-Safety In-Building Wireless (IBW) Coverage

Cellular service and the smartphones of today are a far cry from the “brick” phones of thirty years ago. Evolution from cellular phones to smartphones shifted usage patterns from voice to data, with cellular networks expanding exponentially and technologically to support this change. Today, the majority of traffic on these networks is data-related, which elevates the criticality of having quality network service from “would be nice” to “absolutely required.”

While outdoor wireless network coverage grew to the point where cell towers became a common fixture across the landscape, the one area that lagged far behind was indoor coverage. Even today, with 60 percent to 80 percent of all wireless usage occurring indoors, there’s a lack of quality cellular coverage inside buildings. This is the result of both poor signal penetration from outdoor macrocell sites and capacity issues brought about by the vast concentration of users in a given area—think Super Bowl and convention center.

As wireless networks grew and usage patterns went through a paradigm shift to data, the impact of usage on the macro networks changed as well. The focus evolved from simply coverage to coverage and capacity. The macro networks continue to be crushed by the ever-escalating amount of data being pushed through them. So the focus shifted to carrier offload of data usage from the macrocell sites to systems installed inside buildings. Carriers went on a tear to identify, negotiate, and install distributed antenna systems (DAS) at their own expense into key properties in major markets across the country. Their targets included hotel and convention properties, hospitals, sports stadiums, college and university campuses, and even subway tunnels and airport terminals.

Carrier-installed DAS systems were usually large, complex, and expensive to deploy. With AT&T and Verizon leading the charge, carriers invested billions of dollars to deploy these systems. This myopic focus on deploying DAS systems at no cost to the property became a known fact to building owners and developers everywhere. Whenever issues arose about cellular service quality in or around a facility, the carrier was expected to “fix” the problem. After all, the building owners reasoned, the carriers owned the frequencies so they should solve the problem. Depending upon the client’s importance to the carrier, such demands were often met with the property receiving the DAS at no cost.

Consider this: according to the 2015 Energy Information Administration (EIA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy) survey, there are 5.6 million U.S. commercial buildings that house 87 billion square feet of commercial space serving all types of uses. Skyline Marketing Group took that data and broke it down by size, with total estimated number of buildings in each category. Here’s the breakdown: 

Building Size in Average Square Feet

Estimated Number of Commercial Buildings

IBW Equipment Market (2015-2020)

> 500,000 sf

8,000

$8 billion

100,000–500,000 sf

128,000

$19 billion

50,000–100,000 sf

199,000

$9 billion

< 50,000 sf

5,222,000

$11 billion

Total

 

$47 billion

 

They further analyzed the in-building wireless (IBW) market that included active DAS (which utilizes fiber-optic cables to connect with remote nodes), small cells and passive DAS (direct coax connection from the RF source to the remote nodes) solutions for these commercial buildings. The third column summarizes their estimate of the IBW equipment market for the five-year period beginning with 2015. Note that this estimate is only for equipment purchases and does not include costs associated with engineering, design, installation, service, etc. The cost for these services will, at a minimum, double the $47 billion total.

The wireless carriers continue to focus their funding dollars on larger facilities in the top tier of this market. But their investments reached a fraction of those 8,000 buildings. When you realize that only a fraction of the total need at the highest level received carrier-funded systems, you quickly realize what happens when your facility is less than 500,000 square feet. You’re pretty much on your own, left to source and pay for in-building improvements. And there are nearly 330,000 facilities potentially needing some form of in-building wireless improvement at the next two levels alone. That’s a lot of in-building systems.

Bottom line: the free DAS system gravy train left the station, and it’s not a round trip. Today, unless a location is of prime interest for offloading traffic from the macro network, carriers will no longer foot the bill for in-building cellular coverage enhancement. So the first important point for you to understand and accept is that cellular coverage inside your property is your responsibility. Think of it as just another utility. As Matt Thompson, Cobham Wireless Vice President for the Americas, put it, “Wireless has become the fourth utility.”

Look at it this way: If you called the electric company servicing your area and asked them to pay to install the electrical infrastructure in your new building, how do you think they would respond? How about the water department? So is it reasonable to expect the wireless carriers to pay for your in-building wireless infrastructure? You don’t own the power or the water, yet you pay to install that infrastructure. Cellular is no different. You don’t own the frequencies; as Thompson explains, “Your tenants and guests expect wireless to work in the same way they expect the switch will turn on the lights and the toilets will flush.”

Having spent years working with enterprise customers on DAS solutions, I have hammered home to ownership groups large and small, individual building owners, developers, management companies, and others that they must step up and pay for their own in-building cellular enhancements. It’s only recently that this message has finally taken root and begun to spread. Ownership groups and developers are finally beginning to budget DAS into their build plans from day one. Long before the first piece of dirt is moved, DAS is now finding its way into the construction budget.

The second most important point for you to understand is that you must pre-wire your building for enhanced cellular coverage, even if the need is uncertain pre-construction.

This approach will provide three major benefits:

  1. Cost savings: Spend less up front or potentially millions more later.

  2. Minimal impact on tenants: According to Bryan MacLean, project manager for general contractor Diversified Communications, “Wiring in advance, prior to occupation, reduces the impact on the tenants themselves, as most of the installation work is completed before anyone has moved in.”

  3. Flexibility: Waiting until construction is completed will require you to make concessions in order to work around existing infrastructure. Pre-wiring avoids this and allows you to create an in-building design that is optimal for the property. MacLean speaks from experience when he states, “90 percent of all jobs we do require concessions when work is done to existing infrastructure.”

The evolution of in-building cellular enhancement from “other person’s problem” to “utility” is a critical step. But it’s only the first of many steps that should be taken to insure the proper implementation of a solution in a fiscally responsible way. Six key additional steps include:

1.    Retain an expert

Retain an experienced in-building wireless expert-consultant and/or DAS integrator at the beginning of your design cycle in the same way that you involve your electrical, plumbing, and lighting contractors long before dirt is moved. If you enlist a consultant, you must also have your DAS integrator in place. The key point is that you engage an expert who knows DAS and has verifiable experience with projects similar to yours.

Be prepared to pay for services provided. Do not expect these people to work with you for the next two to three years simply on the hope that you buy a DAS in the future. Remember, at this point you have no idea whether you will even need such a system, and, if you do, what the extent of the system will be. Right now you want to pay for guidance and expertise that will prevent you from overlooking things that will cost you dearly after project completion.

2.    Evaluate carrier and/or third party funding

Your DAS integrator will also operate as your representative with the wireless carriers and potentially with neutral host providers, such as Crown Castle, American Tower, Boingo, ExteNet and Mobilitie, among others. While you should plan to fund the entire project, there is still the possibility that partial or entire funding may be available from a carrier or third-party neutral-host partner, depending upon the specifics of your building, location, traffic, etc.

3.    Know your local NFPA 72 or IFC fire code

Whether on your own or through your DAS partner, get to know your local building and fire codes (NFPA or IFC) relative to first-responder in-building radio coverage. These codes set the requirement for any potential public-safety DAS to be installed in your facility. Your local fire code will dictate if public-safety and cellular service can operate off a single DAS. Should codes require an independent system, your building may require the installation of two separate DAS solutions. This factor should also be reflected in your construction budget.

4.    Obtain a preliminary DAS/IBW design

Pay your DAS integrator to create a preliminary cellular and public-safety DAS design off a digital copy of the building blueprints. This preliminary design will, for the most part, be a very accurate depiction of the DAS system required to support your building. You can also expect to receive a fairly accurate budgetary number along with the design. Probably the most important output of the design is the cable plan. It’s this cable plan that may end up saving you millions of dollars a few years down the road.

5.    Give your DAS design to your preferred electrical contractor

This is the most important thing you must do in your pre-construction phase. Regardless of who is installing the DAS cable, take the cable plan from the preliminary design provided by your DAS integrator and give it to your electrical contractor. Have them incorporate this cable build plan into their overall electrical plan. Make sure the DAS cable infrastructure is installed along with the rest of the building’s electrical work. The cost to install the horizontal and riser cable runs during this phase of the build is a fraction of the cost to install it after construction is complete. Also, run extra fiber strands. It’s inexpensive to run more fiber pairs, pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of adding fiber years later. Whatever the initial plan calls for, triple or quadruple that number of strands to be installed.

While the final DAS design cannot be completed until the walls, ceilings, and windows are finished, the final design almost always parallels the preliminary design, unless there are significant deviations from the blueprints. Even then, it’s relatively easy to reroute a cable or change a termination point, compared to installing entirely new cable runs.

If you need an example of what could happen if you ignore step #4, take a look at the recent debacle at the new McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal, Canada. During development of this $1.3 billion super-hospital, it was “believed” that existing cell phone coverage would be more than adequate to support the facility. Instead of considering a coverage solution from the inside out and planning ahead for a worst-case scenario, MUHC installed outdoor antennas to boost the cellular signals into the building.

According to a report by CBC News, Montreal, the outdoor antennas did little to improve indoor coverage, forcing the facility to deploy a DAS system after the fact. Aside from the logistical challenge of installing 700 antennas, deploying remote units in 37 telecom rooms, and running 30 km of cable—all in a fully operating hospital—MUHC is now expected to spend millions to construct the DAS.

6.    Budget the cost of pre-wiring your DAS

Budget the cost of the cellular and public-safety DAS into your construction budget. You can get a fairly good grasp on the likelihood of actually needing a full-blown DAS by considering the construction method, size, and location of your building. LEED-certified buildings with special low-e glass windows (which reflect RF signals) almost always require a DAS. Any large building with low-e windows will need a DAS. A crowded urban center location with lots of wireless traffic will need a DAS. Deep and cavernous hospitals will need a DAS. Earthquake codes require a DAS. Even large buildings located in the suburbs are likely to need a DAS.

7.    Final site survey and DAS design

Once the building is near completion, with walls, windows and ceilings installed, pay your DAS integrator to perform a full-site survey. From this survey, your DAS integrator will make the final determination as to whether cellular and public-safety DAS solutions are required. If the survey determines that they are, the DAS integrator will create a final design using the survey data and deliver pricing as well. Once you approve the design and the cable plan is approved by all of the stakeholders, installation can commence alongside ongoing construction. Before the final coat of paint is on the walls, your cellular and/or public-safety DAS will be completely installed, tested, and operational.

The demand for high quality in-building wireless services is not slowing down. In fact, with the rapidly developing Internet of Things (IoT), this demand will explode beyond any exponential factor anyone has ever seen. The IoT as an ecosystem is forecast to hit $7.1 trillion by 2020, according to IT research agency International Data Corporation (IDC). Yes, that is trillion, not billion. Wireless truly is the fourth utility. Plan accordingly, implement early, and deploy effectively, and you’ll reap the benefits of a building with top-level wireless services installed up front, on time, and on budget.

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