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In late September, MissionCritical Communications posted several online articles about network-based and wireless handset-based emergency location technologies that will provide local public-safety answering points (PSAPs) the physical location of wireless callers dialing 9-1-1. These articles coincided with the FCC’s implementation of Kari’s Law, which Congress enacted this year.

Kari’s Law was enacted in response to an unfortunate incident where a young girl in a hotel room repeatedly dialed 9-1-1 but failed to reach the PSAP because the hotel’s phone system required a “9” be dialed as a prefix to secure an outside line. The legislation targets wireline voice technology, which increasingly, is limited to relatively large commercial locations. Operators of small businesses and individuals, including persons who lease their residences in multifamily dwelling units, are abandoning use of landline service.

In early October, MissionCritical Communications highlighted the public-safety community’s concerns over wireless carriers promoting Z-axis location accuracy of 5 meters or more as the dispatchable location standard. It was noted that this tech­nology could report a caller’s location either one floor below or above the calling party’s actual location, across the street or in a different building. Also noted was that substantially more accurate standards of 3 to about 1.8 meters are achievable.

Unfortunately, even assuming network-based or handset-based technologies will perform flawlessly, wireless emergency calling from in-building locations remains problematic. The efficacy of in-building wireless communications requires that RF signals be transmitted from and received by wireless callers within the buildings. Energy-efficient building materials impede RF signals, and persons above the 20th floor often do not receive a reliable signal from wireless carriers’ networks, particularly in dense urban areas or other high-density cluster environments.

Distributed Antenna Systems

The principal solution is an in-building distributed antenna system (DAS) built using off-the-shelf technologies and leveraging proven RF engineering practices. DAS enables in-building connectivity for multiple wireless technologies — Wi-Fi, public safety and commercial mobile radio service (CMRS). Whether a home, hotel or venue, a property’s owner or operator largely determines Wi-Fi connectivity. A public-safety DAS is often required by statute.

With the rollout of the First Responder Network Authority (First-Net), AT&T’s participation in DAS arrangements should increase. Whether in-building voice and broadband CMRS is available requires a wireless carrier’s participation and financial commitments from building owners. DAS supporting CMRS may be carrier specific or capable of supporting multiple service providers, referred to as a neutral-host DAS.

In-building DAS configurations require wireless carriers to extend their networks to a venue or building, typically installing baseband and RF equipment in a basement vault or equipment room. The wireless carrier operates this equipment. The RF signal is transmitted via in-building wiring — increasingly, fiber-optic cable — to antennas on one or more locations on each floor or every other floor to maximize coverage through an in-building distribution network. In a neutral-host DAS, multiple wireless carriers’ terminal equipment first connects to the owner’s neutral-host equipment, which in turn connects to the in-building distribution network.

The ecosystem of consultants, equipment, technologies and firms providing turnkey in-building DAS solutions is reasonably mature. Fiber-optic cable is the preferred wiring because of its extended useful life and substantial capacity. Major tower management companies that operate outdoor DAS networks are among the leading DAS providers in major venues. These entities may lease access to their in-building networks to the wireless carriers.

Business Models

Whether a DAS is deployed in a given building or venue turns on a series of business decisions. For­most, a wireless carrier determines whether its network would benefit from an in-building DAS by offloading or minimizing traffic on a carrier’s macrocell/outdoor network or if competitive pressures dictate that its service be available within the venue or building. Whether to extend its network into a major sports and entertainment venue is an easy decision for a wireless carrier.

Beyond these venues, wireless carrier participation is inconsistent, at best. In countless wireless infrastructure forums and conferences, wireless carriers emphasize their resources are limited and acknowledge they cannot extend their networks into every building requiring in-building coverage. Because of wishful thinking or a lack of due diligence by a systems integrator or property developer or owner, more than a handful of well-designed, fully constructed in-building distribution networks are not active because wireless carriers did not commit to extend service to the buildings.

The decision to make the investment for an in-building distribution system belongs to a property developer or owner. Wireless carriers rarely provide financial support for in-building distribution systems. Even if a property owner is willing to make this investment, the question remains whether the wireless carriers will extend their networks into the building and install their equipment to provide service. Many buildings don’t make the cut.

A Combination Solution

A combination equipment and financing solution that may improve carrier engagement in supporting in-building wireless communications exists. Cheytec Telecommunications established a relationship with the principal wireless equipment vendors to acquire the same baseband and RF equipment deployed by the carriers in their networks. Cheytec “takes the investment” in, retains title to and assumes the maintenance for the in-building wireless network equipment, charging the property owner a monthly licensing fee. Further, wireless carriers are authorized to operate and control this installed equipment as part of their networks.

The solution lowers a wireless carrier’s cost of extending its network into a building but still obligates the owner to fund the in-building distribution system and pay the monthly equipment-licensing fee.

Whether an owner takes this step depends on the owner’s economic analysis of providing wireless connectivity for its tenants or residents. Some property owners now view indoor wireless as an essential utility for their tenants. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Wireless carriers could better support property owners by entering into DAS agreements with terms beyond five years, allowing the property owner to recover the cost of the in-building distribution system over a longer period.

Conclusions

Without question, dispatchable location standards must fully support public-safety emergency response activities. Equally important, policy-makers and legislators must recognize that wireless carriers largely determine the underlying availability and reliability of their services within many high-rise residential and commercial properties.

There are no easy solutions because substantial financial commitments are involved, but the challenges associated with in-building wireless communications should be acknowledged by the wireless carriers and recognized by regulators. Without open dialogue, an underlying issue in emergency wireless communications will persist indefinitely.

For more information, please contact Doug Jarrett (jarrett@khlaw.com; 202.434.4180).

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Mission Critical Magazine, and is reproduced with their permission. Visit MissionCritical Communications here

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As 2015 begins, the FCC has reportedly chosen Title II with forbearance as the basis for targeted Net Neutrality rules.  Other headline issues are the incentive auction, re-assessing whether the Communications Act empowers the FCC to pre-empt state laws limiting municipal broadband networks, and redefining broadband as 25 MBPS downstream/3 MBPS downstream.    

However far reaching, the FCC’s focus has blind spots.  Multiple industry sectors and user communities face significant challenges in terms of basic connectivity and market entry opportunities.  This post highlights three areas that deserve far more attention and creative energy from the FCC. 

  1. Lack of Wireless Service Diversity
  2. Nationwide In-Building Wireless Coverage Gaps
  3. USF Contribution Reform

1.         Lack of Wireless Service Diversity.  The statutory and policy biases in favor of spectrum auctions trigger a series of unfortunate dynamics.  Auctions have become a politically unassailable source of government funding.  As the major wireless carriers expend billions for spectrum (almost $45B in the AWS-3 auction), barriers to entry rise; the dominant carriers are in an even stronger position to dictate technology and service offerings.  As a result, the wireless requirements of critical infrastructure industries are ignored at two fundamental levels. 

First, each of the wireless carriers’ data service offerings are limited to wireless high speed Internet access, a “best efforts” service.  Baseline service level agreements for latency, availability, or reliability, even on a regional or local basis, are not offered.  The carriers do not offer wireless equivalents of private line service or virtual IP services, such as MPLS.  The same is true for fixed M2M (“Internet of Things”) offerings:  no SLAs.   

The carriers’ best efforts, “one-size-fits-all” data service conveniently ignores the reality that wireless high speed Internet access service poses significant cyber risks.   That their data must traverse the Internet is a difficult pill to swallow for critical infrastructure CTOs and CIOs constantly challenged to secure their networks from cyber threats.

Second, requests for additional spectrum for wireless voice and data requirements of critical infrastructure industries are given short shrift by the agency.  To meet these requirements, CII firms look to the FCC’s secondary market rules to secure area-wide licenses, principally spectrum that the major wireless carriers have abandoned.  These spectrum resources provide a limited, short term “relief valve” for CCI firms.

2.         Nationwide In-Building Wireless Coverage Gaps.  Almost two years ago, the FCC adopted rules for consumer signal boosters.  Fixed consumer boosters are designed for single-family residences and small business environments.  While the FCC recently proposed helpful rule amendments, fixed consumer signal boosters have limited coverage, require exterior antennas, and are not designed to provide building-wide coverage.    

In its 2013 decision, the FCC deferred to the wireless carriers’ interest in network management, failing to acknowledge the persistence of substantial in-building signal coverage gaps.  This blind spot extends into the FCC’s efforts to improve in-building wireless 9 1 1 capabilities.  Advanced location-based technology is useless if the 9 1 1 call from the dorm room or apartment cannot reach the wireless carrier’s network.

From the author’s vantage point, the demand for in-building coverage far exceeds the ability or willingness of the wireless carriers to serve.   Major venues, airports and rail terminals, and large commercial structures appear to have the carriers’ attention.  But this is not the case for many multi-dwelling residential properties (apartment buildings, condos, college dormitories and retirement communities), commercial buildings, and industrial structures.  This is a particular challenge when upwards of 44% of America’s households rely exclusively on wireless service for voice communications. 

Property owners are beginning to accept that they must bear the cost to install distributed antenna system (“DAS”) technology and some related equipment with the wireless carrier installing, maintaining and operating the RF signal source at the property.  In many ways, DAS is becoming the “inside wiring” for wireless service. 

But when the property owner makes or is willing to make the investment in a DAS, the carriers are often indifferent to reasonable requests for service.  At a given property, participation by the wireless carriers varies:  some or one of the carriers may agree to participate.  It is not unusual for all of the wireless carriers to decline to participate.  And, even when a carrier commits to participate in an in-building solution, the carrier may reserve the right to terminate the relationship without cause on 30 days’ notice.

3.         USF Contribution Reform.  The principal issue with the USF rules is that the contribution rules have not changed since the late 1990s and, despite substantial growth in telecommunications (both information services and telecommunications services) revenues, aggregate assessable revenues have not kept pace.  The contribution factor is well above 16% and will remain elevated due to major USF program reforms such as E-Rate Modernization.  In addition, requests for important rule clarifications remain pending for years.   

The FCC does not grasp the competitive challenges posed by a surcharge of 15-18%, particularly when the applicable rules are unclear and subject to multiple interpretations.  Unlike the wireless carriers, cable companies and the major wireline carriers, all of which systematically pass their USF assessments onto their customers, new telecommunications carriers and ISPs (that don’t have historic rights-of-way grants or franchises) must compete aggressively on price and service quality.  USF contribution levels set at typical state sales tax rates of 4-6% based on clearer, more rational rules would mitigate this competitive hurdle.

The expansion of USF funding to broadband strongly suggests that revenues attributable to the telecommunications (service?) component of high speed Internet access service (probably on a capacity basis) should be assessable.  Assuming the FCC bases Net Neutrality rules on its Title II authority, the pool of assessable USF revenues should expand significantly.  Alternatively, a more sustainable and less convoluted approach (as compared to today’s rules) based on assigned telephone numbers could also work. 

While the FCC punted contribution reform to the Federal State Joint Board last year, the Commission should advance the ball when it receives the Joint Board’s recommendations. 

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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.

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A confluence of factors confirms the FCC’s 2013 Wireless Signal Booster Report and Order is best viewed as a “first-step” in addressing wireless in-building reception challenges.

Significant “gaps” in wireless reception within multi-story buildings and large complexes are likely to persist as long as wireless carriers can decide whether and on what terms to allow property owners to install “industrial signal boosters”—operated in connection with in-building distributed antenna systems (DAS) or not—even though wireless carrier discretion and control are central themes of the Report and Order.

Several trends strongly suggest carrier discretion could prove problematic for persons living or working within multi-story buildings.

  • The growing number of individuals under 35 years of age that rely exclusively on wireless for voice communications is unprecedented, as noted in the  Sixteenth Mobile Wireless Competition Report:  “Approximately half of all adults aged 18-24 and aged 30-34 lived in wireless-only households in the first half of 2012, while nearly 60 percent of adults aged 25-29 did so.”
  • In many multi-story buildings (residential and commercial), access to the outside of the buildings is not feasible; terraces are not commonplace in “high rise” developments.  Thus, consumer signal boosters will not be a solution because their antennas are intended to be mounted on the outside of buildings.
  • The commitment of property developers to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (“LEED”) materials and practices, including Low-E windows that are both extremely energy efficient and extremely effective in blocking wireless signals.

A “carrier-driven” solution that could overcome these challenges is small cell technology. While internal cabling is still required, the costs and time to deploy small cells reportedly compare very favorably to DAS deployments.  One drawback to small cell technology, which also may be WiFi-enabled, is that this technology likely will be deployed on a carrier-specific basis.  Thus, the so-called “neutral host” DAS may prove preferable for many in-building environments because all carriers can be accommodated by these systems.  This is particularly critical in MDUs and multi-tenant commercial buildings.

Even though the carriers hold many “of the cards” for addressing in-building wireless reception challenges, developers and property owners will have to “ante up,” as well.  These challenges will require their engagement and dollars to deliver viable solutions to their residents and tenants.  The “wild cards” include near-by construction and development that can impair wireless reception at a given property and other changes in the macro wireless environment, requiring flexibility and resources from both carriers and property owners.

For the preferred multi-carrier, in-building solutions, the costs typically run well into six figures or more per property; the design and planning of the solution, securing approval from each wireless carrier, and implementing the solution can take upwards of one year.  Unfortunately, not all carriers agree to participate in every project.  While carrier agreements with property owners and enterprises are terribly one-sided, a threshold concern is that the carriers typically demand these agreements be limited to five-year terms and that they have the unilateral right to renew or not, thereby putting at risk the property owner’s infrastructure investments.

These property-specific negotiations also have broader implications.  FCC proposals to promote the efficacy of wireless handset indoor location accuracy for 9 1 1 calls (text or voice) in multi-story buildings will prove to be an academic exercise if  wireless signals cannot be transmitted from these locations, even if slightly distorted by in-building wireless reception solutions.

The 2013 Report and Order is a positive first step.  Its utility and success are open questions at this time.  If it falls short, the Commission may be compelled to limit carrier discretion in regard to industrial signal boosters and impose an affirmative obligation on wireless carriers to support in-building wireless reception solutions.