Finding the best solution provider for poor cellular coverage in your building

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When poor cellular coverage plagues a building – in whole or in part – building owners and managers generally seek professional advice to spec the best system that will solve the problem long term, at the best price, with the least amount of lead time for installation and minimal maintenance hassles.

Often, the first call they’ll make is to their carrier. The solution a carrier provides (at a cost) generally helps improve the coverage for only their network. But what about the apartment building or retail store or hospital where guests along with employees bring their own devices and subscribe to other networks? This requires a solution that amplifies the signal of multiple cellular networks. When this comes up, most carriers will refer their subscribers to a system integrator who has worked with them previously to resolve similar problems for their subscribers.

“A lot of building owners get referred to us by the carriers. Some come from the manufacturers and some come on our website from the owners and managers doing their own due diligence,” says Dan Connelly, President of Atlanta-based ATG (www.atlanticstechnologygroup.com), a cellular solution provider in the Southeast since 2002. “The real work begins after our initial contact, as we determine what their challenges are and the best solution based on their usage needs, building construction, timeline, and budget.”

The Model Changed: Carriers Refer Installers, Not Subsidize Them

Up until a few years ago, many established system integrators focused primarily on installing traditional active distributed antenna systems (DAS) in the largest venues, where the carriers paid for the system as a way to keep the large volume of subscribers that used the venue happy and connected – like malls, stadiums, universities and other large campuses. However, this model has changed as carriers are not willing to pay for in-building cellular coverage solutions for the middleprise venues (facilities less than 500,000 square feet) that comprise the greatest part of the market demanding solutions today. Many system integrators have begun to branch out to other technologies that are a better fit for the  middleprise, such as Cel-Fi QUATRA, an active DAS hybrid from Nextivity that was designed specifically for facilities of this size.

“We often get a referral from the carrier telling us their solution is way too costly for the customer. They know we’ve already worked with many of their customers and they regularly pass us opportunities to see if we have a solution,” says Gary Greening, President of Pacific Services in California (www.pacdatacom.com), who has been installing wireless technology for a decade and started focusing on in-building cellular coverage about four years ago. “Cel-Fi QUATRA is one of our leading solutions for medium to small clients, and it’s been very successful.”

Ideally, in choosing a solution for poor in-building cellular coverage, a building owner should speak to a system integrator who doesn’t offer just a single product or manufacturer, but is well versed in the various solutions available on the market so they can tailor the best fit for the building construction and use. This is important because the cost of solutions can vary by hundreds of thousands of dollars; installation time can vary from a couple of weeks to a year or more for the same venue; and system reliability can cover a wide spectrum – all depending on the type of system and configuration chosen.

Choosing the Right Installer: There Might Be an Easier Way

With the evolution of cellular amplification technology – from analog to digital, from dumb to intelligent systems – there are solutions with highly intuitive and smart tools now available that can also be installed by savvy structured cabling and Wi-Fi installation professionals that may already be under contract to service the facility.

Unlike system integrators that often employ high-end and costly RF engineers, these professional companies partner with equipment distributors or technical support from a manufacturer that provide RF engineering services to them, like site surveys and RF design, so they can deliver more sophisticated equipment with robust SLAs to larger venues than their resources would normally allow. Utilizing these solution providers, building owners experience the best of both worlds – lower cost due to less expensive manpower, with expert RF design and engineering support from the supplier channel.

Texas-based Cellular Signal Solutions (www.cellularsignalsolutions.com) is one of these professional companies that has  a structured cabling contract for the City of Denton covering their data cable, phone and coaxial cabling, computer rooms, design and installation, and fiber optics. It has now branched into installation of in-building cellular coverage solutions.

“I’ve been doing work for the City of Denton for approximately 12 years now. The IT department came to me and asked if I could solve this problem they’re having at a new fire station, built on LEED specs, where they were getting no cellular signal in the bays that house the firetrucks and ambulance,” says Troy Waldrop, owner of Cellular Signal Solutions. “We were able to solve their problem in a single day leveraging our cabling expertise and support from the service engineers at Nextivity to install Cel-Fi QUATRA. As soon as we lit up the system, the firefighters were immediately able to connect over cellular to their trucks.”

Scalability is Important

One size never fits all when it comes to solutions for in-building cellular coverage. The size, dimensions, construction and location of the facility all make a difference. The number of occupants, the device usage, and the carriers used make a major difference as well. Is the coverage needed for just employees on cell phones provided by the company with one carrier? Or for hundreds of people spending hours in a hospital waiting room, watching videos on their cell phones, checking online for the status or a medical report, or talking to a friend? Is the facility a large warehouse with just a few staff, or an underground hotel parking garage? Or is it a restaurant in a food hall that needs better signal to process payments on its point of sales system, or a busy grocery store that wants better cellular service for both their employees and customers?

Scalability of the solution – the ability to size up or down, add or remove carriers, increase or adjust coverage footprint rapidly – is an essential factor in choosing the best fit for a building. This not only impacts the cost and time to get the system installed, but also the reliability and performance of the system once it is in place. Trying to fit a system to fix a problem it wasn’t designed to handle always causes problems in the long run, and frequently requires that the system is pulled out and replaced.

 Screening Checklists

In addition to addressing cost and installation time, here is a basic checklist that can help a building owner or manager when choosing a system integrator to recommend and install a solution:

  • What products are in your catalogue of solutions? From what manufacturers?
  • Why have you chosen those products and what types of venues are they designed for?
  • What are size and type buildings/facilities where have you installed solutions in the past?
  • How will you determine what is the best equipment for my facility?
  • How will you determine the best system design?
  • What carriers do you work with?
  • What SLA do you provide?
  • Will you provide post-installation maintenance?
  • Can you install the system without disrupting our company operations (possibly in the evening or weekends)?

Here is a recommended list of questions to ask about the system itself:

  • Can the system provide 100 dB gain for each carrier signal amplified at the same time?
  • Can the system amplify all the carriers needed simultaneously?
  • Is the system approved by the carriers for use on their networks?
  • Is the system unconditionally network safe, guaranteed not to interfere with the telecom network or other networks inside you building?
  • Is contract approval needed from the carrier(s) before the system installation can be completed? If so, how long will that approval take?
  • Can the system use signal from either the macro cell towers or from a small cell installed at the building site?
  • How long will it take to install the system?
  • Can the system be installed without needing to plumb extra electricity outlets?
  • Will the system be able to amplify the signal through my challenging building construction (metal walls, white room, bullet proof glass, outside cleanroom, other)?
  • Can the system be installed so it doesn’t negatively impact the aesthetics of the building?
  • Is remote monitoring of the system available for maintenance and troubleshooting?
  • Can you provide me with references of other companies like mine where the system was installed?

The Cel-Fi by Nextivity line of scalable cellular coverage solutions was designed to be a best-fit for most middleprise venues. For more information, download the Buyers Guide at  www.cel-fi.com/cre28.

 

A version of this article was originally published by Connected Real Estate Magazine

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