An Up-to-Speed Asset Enhancement
Cellular Network Overhaul Expands Coverage and Capacity
By Kevin Taylor
A growing number of subscribers and mobile devices in use across the country has created a tenfold increase in the capacity requirements for current cellular networks in dense urban areas and retail shopping centres. Heavy demands placed by devices such as Smartphones, tablets, etc. that access a cellular network is driving the trend. At the current rate of growth, it is estimated that network capacity requirements will soon reach 100 to 300 times what they were a decade ago.
Desire for faster upload and download speeds to take advantage of the features and functions of new devices is the catalyst. In the last couple of years, cellular capacity in densely concentrated areas such as high-rise buildings and retail shopping centres have begun to swamp traditional donor sites, in which service is fed from a rooftop antenna and distributed throughout a building.
In response, wireless carriers have re-engineered their networks in high-subscriber urban core areas. In turn, this has caused coverage challenges in high-rise buildings, primarily on the upper floors.
Service providers are expanding their network reach with the installation of new and upgraded in-building distributed antenna systems (DAS) because current network configurations can no longer support user requirements in areas where there are large concentrations of subscribers. Large office buildings and larger shopping centres are frequent candidates for DAS implementation, which introduces changes to coverage and capacity.
Carriers now need to essentially create new micro-cell sites in buildings and malls to solve the demand on their networks, while LTE (Long Term Evolution) requires robust networks to function to the specifications it promises. Meanwhile, building owners/managers are on a learning curve about what the upgrades will entail.
WIRELESS SUPPORT INTO THE FUTURE
LTE (also marketed as 4G) was introduced by the prime service providers – Bell, Rogers and Telus – as the next generation of wireless technology and as an ongoing standard that will improve and evolve over time for continued support of future requirements. It boasts much faster speeds for uploads and downloads, which are largely dependent on network capacity.
For example, older systems may offer download speeds of 2 Mbps (Megabits per second), while LTE offers speeds up to 75 Mbps. Because of these significant increases, LTE will provide a better user experience for browsing the Internet, streaming video, uploading and downloading video or images, VoIP and any other IP-based services.
LTE in-building installations use a fibre-fed DAS system that provides a more streamlined installation via a bank of electronic equipment in a centralized location within the building that feeds outward to a group of antenna nodes distributed throughout the building. The nodes are then connected through coaxial cable to a series of streamlined antennas that are mounted in ceiling tiles or flush to a wall to distribute service reception to mobile users.
Design requirements for an LTE DAS are much more complex than the requirements of older technologies. Whereas older systems required in-building antennas to be installed every 60 metres within the building, LTE systems encompass additional infrastructure and require antennas every 15 metres to provide optimum coverage. This drastically increases the overall number of antennas. These systems support LTE and are also backwards-compatible for users of older CDMA, GSM and HSPA platforms.
Telecom service providers (TSPs or carriers) recognize the importance of upgrading their technology to support LTE. Thus, many carriers are already actively involved in in-building systems within shopping centres and large commercial buildings across Canada to support the rollout of LTE coverage.
From a monetary perspective, upgrading and installing net new LTE systems is expensive and labour-intensive, with capital costs routinely exceeding $1 million in a large building. Carriers are forced to largely swallow these costs as the payback associated with these upgrades is a long-term one.
Nevertheless, upgrades are essential to providing the best and most convenient services to customers, allowing for faster, newer, more innovative services and ultimately increasing customer satisfaction. For example, through LTE, the opportunity will exist for carriers to track client patterns and promote geo-marketing programs such as mobile couponing.
In Canada, the next band, or frequency, to become available to carriers will be the 700MHz band – with the auction set for 2013. This new cellular band will be fully rolled out in the next three to five years, allowing upgraded in-building networks to support future bandwidth requirements without significant reworking. Carriers are already planning for the future of their services with the understanding that LTE will leverage this frequency band.
Due to the size and scope of in-building DAS designs for LTE networks, it is impractical for multiple carriers to operate separate systems within the same building. The neutral-host DAS has been devised as a solution, wherein one carrier takes the lead on the installation and operation of the system, but builds in the capability for multiple carriers (and sometimes private radio and public safety applications) to operate and provide their services on the same DAS.
The lead carrier will typically negotiate a fee that the other carriers will pay to use the neutral-host DAS. This allows multiple carriers to coexist cooperatively on common infrastructure to minimize costs and the overall impact on the building.
REVENUE & CUSTOMER SERVICE
Landlords may not immediately see the advantages of having a neutral-host DAS network on-site. On the surface, installations are complicated and disruptive for both the building and its tenants. Installations can take many weeks to months to complete and must be done after hours to minimize the impact on businesses and the public.
However, carriers will be required to pay the landlord a standard licensing fee through the negotiation of a Telecom License Agreement (TLA) for the space they are using. As this new infrastructure is more complex and takes up more space, this can result in increased revenue for the building.
Nor should landlords underestimate the benefits of DAS systems as they relate to improved user experience and consumer (and tenant) satisfaction within the property. For example, in a shopping centre, an enhanced DAS (as opposed to an internal shopping centre operated Wi-Fi network) will offer a seamless transition of data services for users entering the building. It will also provide the best possible data speeds for the shopping centre’s businesses and clientele.
In a large commercial property, buildings will have much better coverage in areas that are currently generally black holes for cellular reception, such as parking garages and in the elevators. The new systems will not interfere with existing services, and telecom service providers will be keeping both legacy and LTE systems running in parallel until the carriers cease support to older-generation networks and roll the spectrum they operate onto LTE.
Kevin Taylor is with the IT services consulting firm Rycom TPM. For more information, see the web site at www.rycom.ca.