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Coverage boost offers facilities a cutting edge

Ingo_FlomerCommunications regulator Ofcom reported earlier this year that smartphones have now become the primary way UK consumers access the Internet, outstripping usage on laptops and desktop PCs for the first time. This change has led to an increased burden on cellular provision caused by both consumers and businesses accessing high-bandwidth services both outdoors and in premises

With the physical and environmental problems of getting high-capacity RF signals indoors, and mobile network operators often reluctant to provide solutions on a venue-by-venue basis, meeting this demand can be difficult and costly for facilities managers. Ingo Flomer, director of product management, Cobham Wireless explains more.

Building materials old and new provide a range of issues that inhibit the propagation of indoor cellular coverage. From RF-blocking stone and marble to modern structures made of reflective materials, getting signals inside from masts outside has always provided a challenge. This issue is then magnified in venues such as concert arenas and sports stadia, which are prone to sudden spikes in cellular capacity demand causing what little coverage provision is available to be used very quickly.

Cellular is now considered a utility in the same way as electricity and water. Failing to provide adequate coverage inside a venue or office can lead to complaints and drastically reduce the business viability of a facility, especially in a marketplace where some developers and office managers are actively marketing enhanced cellular capabilities as part of their overall package.

Traditionally, with the exception of emergency service communications systems, the use of mobile coverage enhancement systems had been limited by their expense and the inability of mobile operators and facilities owners to agree on who should pay for them. Also, in areas where capacity is sporadic such as universities, offices and stadia, solutions cater for the ‘worst-case scenario’ with this provision then spending most of the time being wasted.

However, with the increased reliance on data usage and cellular capacity for business and personal use, mobile coverage has become a pressing issue which an increasing number of venue managers and owners are addressing, having realised the value of high-quality provision.

Whenever network connection is inadequate, subscribers become frustrated and blame either their mobile network operator or the facility they are in. From the venue owner’s perspective this is likely to mean less time (and money) spent in a leisure facility or hotel, or in an office, owners are faced with business tenants demanding improved provision.

Many commercial applications now require access to mobile data services to operate effectively and efficiently. ABI Research predicts that 26 per cent of the workforce will be mobile by 2019 and, as a result, reliant on robust and widespread connectivity. This usage is not just focused on the use of smartphones and tablets for email, it also encompasses enterprise cloud and hybrid cloud and its associated rich range of applications. Business-critical information needs to be accessible at any given time, so there’s a real need for low-latency, highly resilient coverage, both inside and outside of the office.

To meet this need, many large modern buildings are now constructed with distributed antenna systems (DAS) installed at the same time as the building’s other utilities, including The Shard in London and Heathrow Airport. This mobile operator agnostic solution propagates cellular coverage within buildings and areas which have problems accessing and maintaining 2G, 3G and 4G coverage.

When provisioning an office or leisure facility, cellular provision needs to be considered as early as possible for maximum efficiency. Although retro-fit solutions are available for older buildings, when coverage systems are installed at the point of construction these can be placed in optimum locations and incorporated into other technological facilities, including Wi-Fi infrastructure for example.

DAS has a long history of providing high-quality provision with many high-profile use cases. In some cases, such as the London Olympics, the DAS deployment was funded by a working group of all of the local operators. Increasingly, however, it is the facilities managers who are likely to commission communications infrastructure to increase the marketability of the site. Depending on their target customers, owners can charge a rental fee to local operators or actively promote their facilities as including enhanced cellular coverage.

For managers dealing with multi-use facilities or in inner-city areas where there are a range of businesses looking to enhance the cellular coverage provision in their sites with different time requirements, next generation forms of DAS are now available which can dynamically move capacity as required. This additionally offers new business models as CAPEX and OPEX costs can be shared by all facilities accessing the provision.

Imagine a business park, concert venue and office space within one area –for example London’s O2 arena. In such a venue there are very clear spikes in demand for services at specific times. While network facilities serving the business area and office space are likely to be heavily congested during the daytime, the area will be almost empty at night. Simultaneously the concert area is likely to be extremely busy in the evening if there is an event taking place.

Using traditional capacity solutions, each area would need to be hard-wired into each separate venue. In reality this often means operators invest in a solution which is ‘redundant’ a large proportion of the time. This results in infrastructure which is significantly underused.

The development of intelligent solutions adds another layer to the abilities of DAS. Using modern solutions, for the first time facilities and IT managers are able to divert capacity to other connected facilities in the area. This can be either done on an ad-hoc basis or by using pre-programmed capacity switching based on perceived requirements around known events or seasonality.

With increased reliance on mobile technology, provision of cellular coverage is no longer an optional extra in commercial and leisure premises. With many facilities already offering and marketing these abilities, those who don’t offer these enhancements will be left behind as their customers choose to do business with those who can completely meet their needs.

About Sarah OBeirne

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