As the mobile phone industry turns its thoughts to 5G and a connected future, a recent survey uncovered the shocking fact that many FMs still struggle with patchy coverage within their buildings. But whose problem is it?
As we enter the new year and all the possibilities it brings, the way we’re using technology in the workplace continues to evolve at a rapid rate.
With business and society in general becoming more reliant on connected living, the lines between personal and business technology are more blurred than ever. The rise of the internet of things (IoT), the almost daily advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and an ‘always-on’ culture are just some of the factors that mean connectivity within the office is more important than it’s ever been.
One of the crucial elements of the connected workplace is mobile devices, meaning that access to 4G and, shortly, 5G within buildings is an issue that’s rising up the business agenda. Redstone Connect wanted to know just how big the problem is and what UK businesses are doing about it, so it asked FMJ readers for their opinions.
Those of a nervous disposition might want to look away now.
Of the 141 facilities managers who responded to the survey, conducted in November 2017, nearly one in three (31 per cent) rated the mobile phone coverage inside their building as either poor or a disaster. Most of us use mobile phones because they are, well, mobile. Yet the survey found that walking and talking inside buildings only works for a third of respondents (33 per cent). Half of them (51 per cent) report being frozen to the spot to avoid dropping an important call. So much for the connected office.
But what about the 28 per cent of respondents who said that their business or another tenant in the building already have a mobile coverage solution installed? Surely things look a bit brighter for them?
Surprisingly not. Almost 30 per cent of people that do have a solution installed reported poor or disastrous coverage inside their building. While they fared better when it came to being able to move around, a high proportion (38 per cent) still faced the same static fate.
Ian Smith, In-Building Cellular (IBC) Business Manager at Redstone Connect, comments: “Mobile coverage within buildings is becoming a huge issue for businesses, so in some ways these findings aren’t hugely surprising. What’s notable is the sheer scale of dissatisfaction we found among facilities managers. Even when a solution has been installed, this issue persists – which suggests that efforts by Ofcom, the mobile industry regulator, to find and shut down the many illegal solutions hitting the market have not been as effective as hoped. Businesses remain frustrated, and ineffective ‘solutions’ that have been mis-sold are only going to confuse matters further.”
As well as gauging opinions on the scale of the problem, Redstone Connect wished to gain a better understanding of just how important mobile coverage is in UK workplaces. The survey results certainly point to an expectation of connection, with 62 per cent of facilities managers claiming mobile phones were essential to the business and 34 per cent saying they were important.
There was also almost unanimous agreement (92 per cent) that mobile phone coverage is now the fifth utility (after gas, electricity, water and telecoms). That’s a lot of mobile phone users to placate for facilities managers who already have more than enough on their plate.
When it comes to managing mobile phone use, mobile devices certainly seem to be part of the office environment. Mobile device use is banned altogether in just one per cent of offices, leaving the rest to rely on policies such as bring your own device (BYOD), in which staff are allowed to use their own devices for business (14 per cent), or company owned personally enabled (COPE), meaning staff are provided with company devices for business use (36 per cent). The most popular option seems to be a combination of both (48 per cent).
So who is responsible for dealing with the problem? A recent Ofcom survey revealed that 68 per cent of businesses in London reported issues with mobile phone coverage, but had no idea they could take control and address it. In most cases, the organisation concerned had no one to take formal ownership of the problem. Facilities managers, almost by default, appear to have found this issue at their door after IT and HR have tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve it.
Almost half the facilities managers who responded to the survey (48 per cent) felt that the mobile service provider should be responsible for resolving this issue. This has parallels with the view of IT managers back in the 2000s, when in-building cellular solutions were first introduced. Back then, when faced with this issue, IT managers found it easy to contact their chosen mobile network operator (MNO) and stand back while vast sums were spent on a solution.
Twenty years on, and MNOs have been unable to find the budget required to address the problem. So the buck has been passed to someone else.
Few FMs (11 per cent) feel they are responsible for resolving this issue – yet it’s clear they are the ones hearing about it. In terms of volume, facilities managers tend not to receive more than 10 complaints per month (87 per cent said they see between nought and 10 complaints).
More worrying is the fact that some of these are coming from the boardroom. Senior management have raised the issue to facilities managers (31 per cent) or someone else (seven per cent) in more than a third of businesses. It’s perhaps no surprise that half of businesses are now allocating budget to address this issue.
“The fact that businesses are increasingly allocating budget to this problem is encouraging on the one hand, but also poses questions about how that money could have been better used,” says Smith. “With the right solution it’s often possible to specifically pinpoint coverage blackspots – which regularly turn out to be executive offices or the boardroom itself.”
Most of us are used to, and maybe expect, holes in mobile network coverage in rural areas. Some of us encounter unexpected blackspots in the suburbs. But to find major coverage holes inside office buildings in some of the UK’s most densely populated areas is a huge surprise. So while the mobile industry turns its gaze towards 5G, and the huge engineering challenges that poses, it seems that 3G has yet to make it into some of the swankiest glass and steel edifices in central London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Cardiff. And the industry expects the facilities manager to fix their problem for them.
5G, by the way, is not going to solve the problem de facto. Higher frequencies and smaller cells make for more – and sharper – signal shadows. Apparently, some existing in-building cellular solutions don’t deliver much improvement.
Now is the time to evaluate coverage within your building, and take targeted action to address the blackspots. The right IBC solution can result in a building that is more desirable for tenants, staff and occupiers, and even influence premium rental and market price. As well as being more cost effective and freeing up budget for other priority projects, the impact on staff productivity and satisfaction could mean the difference between a happy new year and an annus horribilis.
According to Redstone Connect, there are a number of key objectives critical to making an In Building Cellular project a success in both its implementation and ongoing delivery:
• Remove any uncertainty – conduct onsite surveys, feasibility studies and existing network analysis before doing anything, as the scale of the issue will dictate the right solution. Based on these initial studies we complete detailed design and implementation, ensuring a solution that’s tailored to your specific needs.
• Get the backing of the Mobile Operators – it’s critical that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are part of the process, and we see this as our responsibility. We have relationships in place with all four UK MNOs, and have established simplified, repeatable processes that are effective in achieving approvals and sign-up quickly.
• Make it technology agnostic – it’s important to get the most efficient and affordable solution to meet your needs, regardless of what technology, approach, manufacturer or product set this involves.
• Be aware of compliance requirements – we work with clients to understand and adapt to meet any compliance requirements that might dictate the implementation or ongoing management of any IBC project. The UK Joint Operator Specifications (JOTS) provide a framework within which mobile infrastructure projects can be more successfully managed, and we’ll work to ensure any deployment is compliant.
• Plan for the long term – any serious IBC project needs to be backed up by ongoing support and maintenance in order to maintain the quality of your IBC solution, minimise your involvement and protect your investment.