I had the privilege last week to lead a panel of industry experts at the BICSI Fall Conference to examine the state of the in-building wireless industry – “Revolution and Evolution: Densifying the Network Through DAS and Small Cells”. The session fostered numerous observations and discussions that lasted well after the allotted hour.
It’s always revelatory to go play in another sandbox rather than one’s own. Meaning – much can be learned simply by going to non-wireless industry conferences.
For starters, it’s a good litmus test to check for alignment. Are we speaking the same language? Are we focused on the right things? Are we making it easy for stakeholders to do their jobs?
The wireless industry loves its acronyms (indeed, every industry has its own vocabulary). But within the BICSI crowd, we quickly discovered found that our “dazz” is often “D-A-S”. Similarly, a comment about coming carrier VoLTE deployments was immediately met with puzzled looks and a question of it meaning.
Don’t be fooled: BICSI attracts the smart folks who are in the infrastructure “trenches”.
Compared to a DAS panel I attended at last year’s conference, the majority of attendees in our session possessed experience in designing, deploying and managing a DAS. And true to BICSI membership characteristics, they were mostly technical engineers focused on network design and implementation; no OEMs nor wireless operators.
Here’s what we learned…
The in-building market exhibits the paradoxical characteristics of a teenager: mature yet immature.
Small cells – a shrunk down version of a macro network Remote Radio Head (RRH) – are part of the toolkit to cost-effectively densify smaller buildings. However, this strategy continues to lack an ubiquitous business process for deployment.
Similarly, it has been observed by ABI’s Stuart Carlaw that DAS is evolving at a frightening pace. Unlike small cells, DAS can serve as a “neutral host” to support multiple wireless operators as well as public-safety. Additionally, DAS systems can be tailored to provide appropriate capacity levels through a variety of remote amplifiers including low power (1W/2W), mid-range (5W) and high power (20W). Still, the deployment of LTE has meant end-of-life to many DAS networks – some barely three years old. Plus DAS is unable to deliver analytics beyond a rudimentary level.
As the title of the session alludes, the in-building space continues to mature – much like a teenager. So we expect the paradoxes will continue even as the industry makes significant advances.
Enquiring Minds Want to Know
We fielded a lot of questions…
Who’s responsible for owning the in-building network?
Joe Mullin (InSite Wireless) believes the best model is for a “neutral host” such as his company to own it. They possess the capital and the repeatable process among OEMs, Integrators and Operators to see a densification project through “on air” completion. Over the past 12 months, neutral host has become the most prevalent model. But another is the carrier-owned model such as AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group (ASG). This model enables the operator to be the anchor tenant and allows other operators to join (akin to a neutral host). Lastly, a venue itself may choose to own the network; however this model is currently less prevalent among DAS deployments
Who’s responsible for paying for a public-safety network to comply with local mandates?
Bob Kelley (MCS) says the building owner should’t have to shoulder the entire burden of cost to comply with public-safety mandates. A neutral host DAS is a pragmatic solution to deploy public-safety communications in addition to cellular services to meet requirements and mandates. If the DAS is being build – typically – for commercial cellular, it’s advantageous and cost-effective to add the public-safety layer. After all, Kelley says that public-safety should accomplish four things: (1) enable interoperable communications among agencies; (2) provide e911 location; (3) enable the general public to communicate with emergency personnel and; (4) enable emergency personnel to notify and communicate with the general public. (These are issues the Safer Buildings Coalition are wrestling with in which SOLiD is a founding member). However, some mandates prefer to keep public-safety, which increases the cost because it requires a separate and parallel network.
What’s the right tool to enable in-building communications?
The toolkit currently consists of DAS, Small Cells and WiFi. For buildings under 100,000 square feet, small cells are the obvious choice. Conversely, for big venues larger than 500,000 square feet, DAS is best-positioned to address capacity and coverage needs. But that exposes a gray area in-between where we believe there will be a hybrid. For example, consider a hotel / conference center… We might put small cells in the lobby, conference areas and open areas where there is a need for higher capacity and deploy DAS through the rooms. And layer WiFi throughout. We’ll be publishing a paper in the coming months on this thought-provoking topic.
With BYOD (bring your own device) initiatives and trends where companies eschew desktop phones (remember those?) for smartphones, the BICSI community can’t avoid in-building.
Given the unique characteristics of every building, these RCCD engineers say there are too many variables to consider including LEED (green building) materials; leaded walls (in hospitals); floorplans (open areas versus offices); and proximity and sides facing macro towers – all of which affect design and link budget.
However, the in-building industry continues to struggle with the challenge of expertise among those who design, install and manage the networks.
Wireless operators are increasingly requiring training and certification to ensure QoS (quality of service) over DAS networks. OEMs including SOLiD offer sophisticated training programs that cover RF principles as well as product-specific nuances. CIBET has led the industry by providing BICSI accreditation for the in-building RF Engineering and Project Management communities. And PCIA just announced its training initiative vision.
BICSI is actively developing standards and guidelines to define current practices and drive improvement in quality and system performance.
With public-safety rapidly becoming a requirement, standards will be increasingly important including ways to certify that buildings are FirstNet public-safety compliance.
Our Brilliant Panel
Engaging discussions are made great by insightful thought leaders. We were fortunate to have accomplished stakeholders from the network design, infrastructure, OEM and integrator roles including:
- Christy Miller – a BICSI board director and owner of BCL Enterprises which provides IT design and engineering services for deployments within the education and healthcare industries
- Bob Elliot – a product development leader at Panduit which manufactures IT infrastructure products (SOLiD is a Panduit Technology Ecosystem Partner)
- Joe Mullin – CTO at InSite Wireless, a neutral host owner for DAS networks whose projects include the Moscone Center (which features a SOLiD DAS)
- Ken Sandfeld – SOLiD’s EVP who leads the company’s overall sales and product strategy
We hope to keep the discussion going among the BICSI community through webinars and inclusion on future conference agendas. Stay tuned.