Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Brad Allen, Director of Wireless Solutions at AccuTech, and Nate Fuentes, Business Development Manager at CommScope.
The growing number of mobile devices and connections inside buildings highlights the importance of understanding the nature of in-building network connectivity, particularly cellular connectivity.
Mobile devices are the primary source of connectivity for most people and, increasingly, for things (i.e., the internet of things and machine-to-machine). As the wireless industry evolves toward 5G, indoor mobile communication will become even more prevalent. The problem is that only 2-3% of current buildings have in-building wireless (IBW) networks for mobile connectivity. Construction companies and building owners can expand IBW in their properties — but how?
IBW demand meets in-building reality
Few people today live without a constant tie to some type of cellular or Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi networks were designed as best-effort systems for data, not voice, and even for data they work only when the user has access to the network and has taken the step of logging onto it.
In business, everything from conference calling to asset tracking requires a reliable wireless connection. In 2015, studies by major cellular service providers, such as AT&T, showed that 70-80% of all cellular calls originate or terminate inside buildings. That percentage is only expected to grow as wireless-enabled applications increasingly pervade homes and businesses.
For example, many restaurants are moving or have moved to wireless ordering systems to enable quicker sales and higher profit margins. Retail establishments are using mobile apps to better market products and services in real time and gain better insight into their customers’ interests and behaviors. Current trends in office design are moving toward “open” and “shared” office spaces where employees may not be at the same desk location each day. The advent of 5G will accelerate the move toward a future that is primarily wireless because 5G will deliver much higher throughput with higher reliability and lower latency than previous generations of mobile technology.
However, there is a big roadblock standing in the way of our connectivity expectations of the future: the current state of in-building coverage. Most buildings today rely on the outdoor macro network to deliver the needed coverage and capacity, but many buildings don’t receive adequate signals. Thick concrete walls, steel building materials and Low-E energy-saving glass all work to block or restrict wireless signals from penetrating the interior of buildings. The result is spotty or, in some cases, non-existent indoor cellular service.
We have a fundamental gap between wireless users who increasingly depend on continuous wireless connectivity and the availability of those connections. Many people assume that cellular service providers are responsible for coverage everywhere, but in fact, they can only ensure widespread coverage outdoors. Building owners nearly always bear the responsibility for providing IBW service.
Accelerating IBW deployments
Familiarization is the fundamental issue in accelerating IBW deployments. In new construction, IBW needs to be planned and budgeted for in the same way as any other basic utility for a building — at the design stage. It would be unthinkable for the water, gas and electricity ‘networks’ to be considered only after the building has been constructed, and in fact, building owners pay for deployment of wired communications networks as well. The same should apply to wireless network connectivity in new buildings.
Connectivity has become the "fourth utility," and building owners who provide it will have happier tenants and premium lease rates. Nevertheless, most building owners and contractors are behind the curve when it comes to recognizing the need for providing IBW solutions. IBW means enabling coverage for more than one mobile operator as many companies allow employees to bring their own devices (BYOD) and that requires supporting more than one mobile operator on the IBW system.
At the construction level, IBW vendors and resellers need to explain the need for multi-operator coverage from the ground up. If the customer is building a facility, it will need a tenant. That tenant will have companies, customers or residents who will expect coverage. IBW should be considered during the construction phase when it is much less expensive to install than after the building is built.
At the real estate level, building owners must be educated on the demand for wireless coverage and the ROI benefits of deploying it. While new buildings can be designed to incorporate IBW from the start, even existing buildings should be considered for IBW retrofits. The existence of strong indoor coverage is, in both cases, a drawing card that will favor a building for potential lessees.
In the case of existing buildings, it can also be stressed that modern IBW systems use digital technology and existing Ethernet and/or fiber cable to carry the signal to remote antennas, thereby reducing the cost and complexity of deploying heavy coaxial cabling that was the norm in legacy IBW systems and surprisingly is still used by many today. Heavy coaxial cabling requires specialized installers, cable supports and other infrastructure, which extends the time-to-deployment and hikes costs to as much as $2 to $3 per square foot, whereas modern IBW systems that leverage Category 6a cable and fiber can be deployed for less than $1 per square foot.
With digital technology, the IBW system looks and functions much more like the standard Wi-Fi networks that most buildings already have. Digital IBW systems don’t require specially-trained installers or maintenance personnel or costly maintenance contracts because they can be maintained by in-house IT personnel. Many enterprise IT departments intuitively understand the familiarity of Category 6a Ethernet and fiber transport, and today’s modern IBW systems use remote antennas that are very much like Wi-Fi access points in terms of deployment. In fact, digital IBW systems can leverage existing Ethernet and fiber infrastructure, which significantly reduces deployment costs without impacting existing services. Fiber-based systems also provide a degree of future-proofing because they can support forthcoming 5G services without any new infrastructure installation.
When it comes to paying for an IBW system, there are three basic approaches: carrier-funded, owner-funded or neutral host-funded.
- Carrier-funded: Many customers initially think they can simply cut a deal with a carrier to deploy and operate an in-building system, but this model has become quite rare. Simply put, carriers have their hands full with macro networks and cannot justify the return on investments for funding IBW systems for the interiors of buildings. Carrier funding is increasingly limited to marquee properties like large venues and stadiums.
- Neutral host-funded: A neutral host is a company that sells IBW as a managed service to the building owner or enterprise. Companies like ATC, Boingo, Crown Castle and ExteNet all shoulder the cost of deploying and maintaining the IBW network in return for a monthly lease fee. This approach is attractive to enterprises, as it changes the cost from a capital expense to an operating expense and lets them spread out the cost of the system over a long period of time.
- Owner-funded: Most IBW projects today are funded by the building owner or enterprise customer. In these cases, the customer works with an IBW reseller to deploy the system and engage the wireless carriers to join.
In our view, the widespread deployment of IBW systems in commercial buildings is inevitable. When the irresistible force of expanding mobile wireless usage meets the challenge of bringing cellular signals indoors, something must give. Building owners are finding they can increase profits and improve lease rates by deploying IBW systems, new business models have emerged to take the sting out of buying an IBW system, and advanced digital technology makes it easier to deploy and manage these systems than ever before.