Networks Prepare for the In-Building Bandwidth Storm
Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), in-building networks, are experiencing explosive growth as data traffic density in large campuses like sports stadiums, hospitals, and universities has increased, with rapidly rising smartphone applications usage, beyond the ability of macro networks to serve their needs. While DAS entails high fixed costs and complex deployments, new financing models are overcoming the challenges.
"In metropolitan cities, telecom traffic is concentrated in some locations, especially in rush hours, and available spectrum allocations are insufficient to carry enough data for customer satisfaction,” Bryce Bregen, vice president of Connectivity Wireless Solutions, a systems integrator, told us. "Carriers want to offload traffic to DAS in such situations," he said.
The El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif. is illustrative of changing network needs with the growing use of smartphone applications. The hospital invested $2.5 million in DAS alone. This is not surprising given that all the beds in its facilities are electronically connected, the doctors use tablets and the clinical communication systems are wireless.
Signals from macro networks are frequently lost in some zones such as elevators. The El Camino Hospital uses Tug Robots which distribute food, medicines, and laundry in the hospital. The robots often use elevators where access points are installed to monitor their movements. DAS extends wireless communications to such zones. "Signal attenuation is significant especially in the growing number of modern green buildings which use glass," JJ Burkey, vice president, Mid-west, for Accu-Tech, a provider of materials for DAS projects, told us.
DAS can transport data, from multiple wireless operators from outside the building, using a wired cable, and retransmit it wirelessly from many antennas spread over several base stations inside a building. The central hub of DAS ensures that the same signal is transmitted from the many antennas spread around the building. Active DAS also amplify the signals to maintain a consistency in its quality.
The consistency of the signal is especially important in sports stadiums where fans are increasingly sharing content about the most exciting moments in a game with their peers. Sports clubs like New York Jets and New York Giants have added spice to fan content with multiple angles of view of the game. Unsurprisingly, 75% of pro sports teams have installed distributed antenna systems over the last three years.
"The earliest and the most profitable DAS projects were the largest and the highest profile stadiums whose coverage needs were met by Wireless Service Providers (WSPs) or Neutral Host Providers (NHPs) who have been building towers for carriers. WSPs save costs when multiple carriers using a variety of frequencies are hosted. Alternatively, the NHPs build DAS and earn recurring revenue from WSPs when they transmit their RF," Justin Green, senior global solutions executive at Vision Technologies Inc., told us.
Enterprises are the emerging market and their potential demand has grown. "In enterprises, such as retail stores, customers using comparative shopping applications prefer outlets with better bandwidth," Green remarked about some of his more recent clients. However, carriers are less willing to foot the bill for enterprises although there is a growing need for DAS in this segment of the market. "Carriers are holding back investments in enterprise accounts because they are unable to demonstrate the ROI as the tax code favors BOYD payments to individuals," said Bregen from Connectivity Wireless Solutions.
While carriers are reluctant to foot the bill for enterprises, system integrators are able to broker such deals. "System integrators are more likely to win deals and earn commissions when they garner investment capital for their clients," JJ Burkey told us.
Professionally managed high-rise apartment and condominium complexes offer another emerging market for DAS. "Service quality deteriorates in professionally managed high-rise buildings where call drops are frequent, especially at higher levels, as cell phones see several macro sites before the call is routed," Green said. "Financing for buildings comes from companies like American Towers who are willing to invest in DAS in exchange for rights over the roofs of such buildings," Burkey told us.
"Private funding for DAS in commercial properties will likely accelerate as the economy recovers. Mobile users demand ubiquitous cellular connectivity and high-end property owners see it as a competitive advantage," Brian L. Wheeler, director of wireless solutions at AFL Global, told us. "As carrier digital technology migrates to the single LTE platform, the inclusion of Voice over LTE will drive the evolution of the DAS architecture and expand coverage to readily include Tier 2 and 3 type buildings," Wheeler said.
DAS is only one of the many forms of increasing heterogeneity within the larger broadband network. Macro networks are seen as a means to transport data across regions while local needs are met by networks customized for them. These networks are also more optimal in that they save the data journey back and forth from a macro network. The data generated locally and consumed locally stays local in order to relieve some of the congestion endemic in mobile networks.