“Dead spots,” the places cell signals can’t reach because a building is too big large and think is still an issue in many places, writes Fierce Wireless’ Mike Dano. In-building wireless remains an elusive frontier for carrier, but it could, or could not, become a major opportunity the wireless industry, including network operators, equipment suppliers and installation technicians.
Whether in-building wireless moves forward however could depend on who pays the bill.
Wireless network operators have historically focused on outdoor, geographic coverage mostly by building big cell towers than can send signals across a neighborhood or small city. It’s an effective setup as long as there aren’t any large buildings in the area because cellular signals, especially ones working on low spectrum bands like 700 MHz or 600 MHz can through a lot smaller structures.
For larger structures however, like hotels, stadiums and office complexes, there is no easy for a signal to make its way through all of the steel and concrete. Unfortunately for property owners, customers still expect their phone to work, regardless of where they are.
To accommodate these demands, carriers and equipment suppliers work together with larger venues to put in networks like Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). These networks basically create a bubble of indoor cellular coverage by installing a small base station in the basement and putting antennas in different rooms. Sometimes these installations can cost millions of dollars to build and maintain, especially in major sports stadiums.
According to Bill DelGrego, VP of sales and business development at tower and small cell company ExteNet Systems, it’s the cost of doing business. The thinking is, football fans who can afford Super Bowl tickets and spend $2,000 a night for a hotel are customers worth holding to. So network operators are willing to spend what is necessary to keep them connected while they travel.
“They don’t want them to churn,” DelGrego said.
Meanwhile, wireless operators spend a healthy amount money on their networks—collectively they are anticipated to spend approximately $30 billion on their works just this year, Dano writes.
There are instances where it’s not worth it for a network operator to install a high-priced DAS—like at a church or apartment building just to connect a handful of customers a few hours a week.
While it may look like those churchgoers or apartment residents might have to accept seeing “no signal” warnings on their phones, they might get a reprieve in the form of their landlords.
According to Piyush Raj, American Tower Director of Technology Innovation, the in-building problem has been changing. Real estate companies, building owners and landlords are starting to view wireless as a “fourth utility” along with water, power and heating and cooling. People are making the argument that reliable wireless connections could increase a building’s value. So value that it would be worth the owner’s while to pay for an upgrade.
“It’s flipping the idea upside down,” said Ray La Chance, the CEO of network installation company ZenFi Networks.
DelGrgo meanwhile stated a major New York building owner paid American Tower to install wireless connections on the top three floors of a luxury apartment complex because it could not justify charging $25,000 a month for rent in locations where residents couldn’t access their social media accounts.
“I’m getting calls daily to get a quote [for an in-building wireless system],” DelGrego said. “The real estate owners are calling all of us (in the network business).”
New Jersey startup Cheytec Telecommunications specifically targets this area. Its customers are building owners who want wireless installed, but can’t get the carriers to pay for it. Cheytec will intervene with the network operators to obtain the rights for their licensed spectrum, and buys Nokia and Ericsson equipment, “to supply the same RF base station and radio equipment that carriers use themselves,” the company says on its website.
“A building owner doesn’t put flowers in the lobby unless they understand why those flowers make them money,” said Jarrett Bluth, CEO of Cheytec.
The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band has also made its way into the in-building conversation. The FCC is expected to issue its final ruling on cellular operations in that spectrum band this summer. Companies like Verizon, Google and Federated Wireless all hope to deploy wireless services on 3.5 GHz right away.
However, the FCC’s proposed licensing rules for the band also open the door for a number of providers to deploy 3.5 GHz services, including property owners possibly.
“It’s a great opportunity for in-building,” Raj said. “It enables so many things.”
The hope among CBRS proponents is they’ll be able to build an in-building ecosystem around the spectrum band that would let venue owners and landlords plug into a complete wireless system similar to how they would deploy Wi-Fi. Meanwhile the CBRS Alliance is working on specifications to support these types of in-building installations so they can work with carriers’ outdoor, macro networks. Verizon has already stated it would support 3.5 GHz operations.
If the FCC approves the 3.5 GHz band, it might still take years for the industry to welcome an in-building model around CBRS that real estate companies can use.
“I think it’s going to take a while for this paradigm shift to happen,” said Dominic Villecco, president of V-Comm Telecommunications Engineering.
There’s hope within the wireless industry that building owners will take on the in-building challenge and pay for the upgrades when wireless network operators won’t, but some remain skeptical of that happening.
“I wish it was more of a trend, honestly,” said Mike Kavanagh, SVP of sales and chief commercial officer of tower company Crown Castle. “I have not seen as much uptake because I think that’s a pretty big leap. The landlords have a hard time paying for a lot of things.”
Although things don’t look good now, Kavanagh believes it could happen at some point.
“As you educate folks, I think we will see some landlords stepping up,” he said.
It’s important for building owners who opt to install a wireless system to know it’s not a “one and done” situation. Unlike other utilities, wireless systems have to be managed, maintained and updated with the newest equipment.
The other big question when it comes to in-building coverage revolves around the potential 5G network technology. The transition to 5G could be an opportunity for building owners and landlords to install the most modern technology in their locations if the equipment and spectrum can be easily obtained. However, the latest “G” could hinder the in-building push if real estate companies believe it to be a reason to not invest in wireless out of concern it could become outdated if 6G comes around at some point.
However things shake out, it’s obvious that wireless companies are looking to building owners to shoulder some of the costs for network deployments that the wireless carriers are avoiding.