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The Rise of the System Integrators

By Seth Buechley
July 1st, 2011

Episode 5 of 6: Evolution of Multi-Carrier DAS

It usually doesn’t take long to spot the smartest person in the room. With regard to knowing the most about how DAS systems are designed and deployed, the DAS integrators stand alone. The changes in the wireless industry and, specifically, the multi-carrier in-building space are sifting the integrators into several categories while stretching them to expand or refine their focus. For the most part, this fifth installment of the series addresses pure-play DAS integrators – those who deploy DAS systems as their core business rather than occasionally.

Typical DAS integration services being offered:

  1. Proposal Development: Presenting the end-user with a project overview that typically includes a system one-line diagram, basic product specifications, and a firm fixed price for delivering a successful project.
  2. System Design: Collecting existing signal strength, defining the project conditions, running propagation models, and presenting a comprehensive plan of how the system should be built. Sometimes a design must be delivered in a CAD format to integrate into project construction documents. Otherwise, iBwave has become the acceptable standard for communicating a design.
  3. Carrier Coordination: Managing the exchange of technical information between the building owner and carriers who will provide services over the DAS. This service is not the same as representing the leasing and financial transaction that may need to take place between the building owner and the carriers.
  4. System Implementation: Managing or self-performing the fiber and coax installation, building out head-end room racks, getting power to each remote location, and mounting all remote equipment.
  5. System Optimization: Testing the system to ensure performance and proper antenna placement before carriers provide signal source. In some countries this can also include verifying EME compliance.
  6. Signal Source Integration: Working with each carrier or public safety agency to integrate their signal source delivering their licensed frequencies over the DAS. This phase is completed upon acceptance testing from each carrier.
  7. DAS Management: Ongoing maintenance and management of the DAS including, in some cases, monitoring, SLAs, extended warranty and other services provided to the end-user or carriers.

There are very few pure-play DAS integrators that make a real attempt at delivering services on national scale. Most integrators have chosen to align their business by geography or by a key vertical market such as government, hospitality or health care. Since most DAS installations do not require a permit or local business license, there is nothing that prevents a DAS integrator from pursuing installations in any market.

Enterprise Driven Integrators sell multi-carrier DAS solutions (and an occasional single-carrier solution) to end-users who own or lease large buildings. Selling these larger, more complex systems requires the enterprise integrator to possess sufficient in-house sales, engineering and project management professionals who can scope, sell, design, install and, in some cases, manage a “turnkey” solution including necessary carrier coordination.

Carrier-Driven Integrators derive the lion’s share of their business directly from the carriers. Therefore, they install a ton of smaller, single-carrier solutions (a DAS that serves only one operator) and are accustomed to competitively bidding dozens of small projects per year. Sometimes they are asked to specify DAS equipment, but often that choice or recommendation is made by the carrier who has a preconceived idea about which brand of DAS solution will fit the application. In many cases an operator will leverage their supply chain buying power to purchase equipment directly from the DAS manufacturer.

Public Safety opportunities abound for DAS integrators who have earned the trust of the “first-responder” community. Many a “cellular” DAS engineer have wandered into the public safety space only to discover that the public safety community considers their own level of engineering to be significantly more complex, specialized, and critical than commercial services. Learning how to address the nuances of public safety agencies and their RF concerns is a valuable attribute for a DAS integrator. The recent availability of DAS solutions that can manage UHF/VHF and commercial mobile services over a single converged platform offers an ideal tool for integrators to pursue public safety DAS solutions that will often grow to full large-scale multi-carrier DAS solutions.

DAS Management Services also represent a growing opportunity for integrators to expand their business and develop a stabilized recurring revenue stream. Building owners are not set up to manage DAS systems and carriers have been, at best, only skilled at maintaining single-carrier DAS. Services may include those listed below and are usually offered on a fixed-contract annual or hourly basis.

  • System Monitoring and NOC Services: Only a few integrators have invested in an in-house network operations center (NOC) for the purpose of maintaining visibility and control of a DAS through a web-based operations and management program. Other integrators have chosen to partner with a third-party NOC service to track trouble tickets and maintain a record of how each issue resolved.
  • Scheduled Inspection and Maintenance: On-site verification of system performance as often required for DAS systems providing public safety coverage or for educated venues that demand proof of DAS performance and capacity.
  • Field Services: When a system performance issue requires a technician be deployed, the integrator, or their local designate, is required to visit the site.

Standardization: With standardization comes increased competition. What has been a specialized niche exclusive to experienced RF engineers and carriers is becoming a more common part of the low-voltage construction scope for large construction projects. As several DAS manufacturers have been acquired by large structured-cabling businesses, the traditional structured-cabling contractor channel has gained exposure to the world of DAS. Armed with a basic understanding of DAS and a propagation prediction tool, these low-voltage cabling firms are increasingly representing themselves to building owners as experienced DAS integrators.

Carrier habits: The biggest challenges to integrators may come to those who rely too heavily on carriers for their business. Carriers, often bound by supply chain requirements for competitive bidding, are nearly always shopping for low price and not necessarily the best RF engineering. Furthermore, carriers are prone to purchase DAS equipment directly from manufacturers, thereby eliminating the opportunity for product mark-up that would otherwise be earned by the integrator. In some cases, carriers are even bringing DAS design services in-house, which reduces the DAS integrator’s scope to installation services.

For now, the DAS market is hot enough that most DAS integrators are staying busy. However, the changes in the industry are requiring that they reinvent themselves by expanding their service offering and moving beyond total dependence upon wireless carriers for their business leads.

Seth Buechley is the president of SOLiD Technologies. For more information visit www.solid.com

This article was originally published on AGL Bulletin.

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