Photo of C. Douglas Jarrett

Wireless carriers’ networks are subject to recurring capacity constraints, particularly in high density, urban environments.  Owners of buildings and developments in urban areas and operators of major venues—stadiums, arenas and airports, are increasingly dealing with in-building wireless reception challenges.  The same is true for many corporate and college campuses, buildings constructed to LEEDs standards, and properties located in wireless dead zones.

The consistent growth in wireless data requirements and the displacement of wireline service by wireless for voice communications underlie persistent wireless network capacity challenges.  Small cells and heterogeneous networks (“HetNets”) (integrated Wi-Fi and wireless carrier networks) are viewed as technologies potentially capable of alleviating these capacity constraints, as noted in a series of articles in the March 2014 edition of Small Cell Magazine.

For major venue operators, enterprise customers, government agencies, colleges and universities, and owners of MDUs and multitenant commercial buildings (collectively “Property Owners”), “the future is now” for dealing with wireless reception challenges.  Consumer signal boosters recently approved by the FCC do not provide building, venue, or campus-wide solutions.  Wireless carrier engagement and consent are required to implement property-wide solutions.

The principal technologies for addressing in-building coverage gaps are outlined in recent articles by the HetNet Forum and David Chambers, respectively.  A potential game changer is the standalone Wi-Fi networks of the major cable operators which rely on Wi-Fi hotspots.  The Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” column reports that Sprint is positing the success of Time Warner and Comcast in rolling out Wi-Fi networks as evidence that the wireless broadband market is sufficiently competitive, mitigating antitrust concerns regarding its coveted merger with T-Mobile.  Smaller companies are focused on delivering Wi-Fi solutions to MDUs.  The popularity of Wi-Fi-only iPads, tablets and e-readers underscores the potential for Wi-Fi-enabled, property-wide solutions.

Addressing In-Building Wireless Capacity/Coverage Challenges

Major venue operators tend to secure desired solutions in a timely manner.  Apparently, the desire to avoid negative publicity associated with reports of bad coverage at major sporting events motivates carriers to address coverage and capacity challenges at these venues.  However, the demand for wireless connectivity and personal safety considerations indicate that in-building wireless reception challenges should be addressed in all environments.

Prior to investing in a wireless reception solution, Property Owners typically retain an experienced consultant or systems integrator to conduct a wireless coverage assessment for their property or campus.  In addition to signal strength studies, experienced consultants bring knowledge of the wireless carriers’ local networks and build-out plans and relationships with carrier network engineers.  Occasionally, these assessments result in carriers funding a portion of a project because the in-building solution offloads traffic from capacity-constrained macro networks.

Carriers and consultants typically suggest that property owners or their contractors reach out to the carriers up to one year in advance of planned construction.  This advance notice/discussion period is a non-starter for Property Owners of existing premises experiencing wireless reception challenges.

The top-of-the-line, capex intensive in-building solution is an active DAS system.  These DAS systems can accommodate multiple carriers and, with some exceptions, all wireless carrier frequency bands, Public Safety frequencies, required by a growing number of local ordinances, and the unlicensed frequencies used in Wi-Fi networks.

Over and above the cost and technology considerations, the most daunting challenge for Property Owners can be obtaining the “buy-in” from the wireless carrier(s).  Perhaps due to a lack of resources or skepticism that non-carriers can design effective solutions, wireless carriers often view working with Property Owners on in-building solutions as something to avoid, if possible.

When we review the standard agreements carriers offer Property Owners in order to support or consent to an in-building solution, several points jump out:

  1. The customer-friendly terms and conditions previously provided in signal booster attachments to wireless services agreements have vanished.
  2. The standard wireless macro-site lease provision of a 5-year term with up to four 5-year renewal terms solely at the carrier’s option is a constant carrier demand. This puts Property Owners’ investment in its solution at risk and ignores the reality that Property Owners are “involuntary aggregators” of the carriers’ customers trying to implement a solution benefitting the carriers’ customers.
  3. Wireless carriers reserve the right to decline to approve a proposed solution for any reason and some demand the right to terminate their consent at any time upon 30 days notice.
  4. Carriers’ demands for open-ended indemnities in connection with in-building solutions.

Hopefully, the wireless carriers will reassess current approaches and work with Property Owners as partners in developing and deploying in-building wireless solutions for their common subscribers, tenants, and residents.