Indoor connectivity: the fourth utility
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

In-building coverage is increasingly becoming essential to developers, property managers and occupants – but providing it is a complex business, as Simon Creasey discovers

As recently as three years ago it would be unusual for an office occupier to want to speak to the landlord about a building’s connectivity infrastructure. However, today it is an issue that is top of mind for the vast majority of occupiers, according to Basil Demeroutis, managing partner of property developer FORE Partnership.

“Conversations with occupiers are about much more than just ‘what does the floorspace look like?’,” says Demeroutis. “It’s now about ‘what do the building’s cycling facilities look like, what’s your wellness approach?’, and in that litany of things digital infrastructure comes up frequently. As a result, we plan it [digital infrastructure] into our buildings, regardless of whether we’re doing a light refurbishment or a wholesale ground-up development.”

But delivering Wi-Fi, cellular and two-way radio coverage across buildings isn’t easy. Just ask Bachir Belloul, chief of engineering at iWireless Solutions, which specialises in delivering network coverage across locations such as transport hubs, arenas and stadia – the company helped deliver connectivity across a number of 2012 Olympic Games sites. He says each type of venue presents its own unique set of challenges.

“For example, the challenge with stadia is you need to provide capacity, but you are limited in the amount of spectrum you can push through because people are sat next to each other and you’re trying to cover the entire stand,” explains Belloul. “And if you’re talking about an arena or an entertainment venue, you might have challenges linked to the building itself – if it’s a listed venue, for instance.”

First steps
So how is the industry helping building owners and property managers get around these challenges?

The first thing wired and wireless networking equipment and software suppliers do is undertake a physical site survey. It is a vital step, according to Steve Johnson, regional director Northern Europe at Ruckus Networks, who says it would be a big mistake to deploy a wireless network based purely on a building’s blueprint design.

“The difference between a blueprint and the final shape of the building can be quite marked,” says Johnson. “What on the initial plans looked like a kitchen might now be a big meeting room and the walls and electrics might have changed. If you get the design wrong in the first place it will lead to some kind of follow-up review and probably some kind of cost for the troubleshooting involved.”

Calling in network experts early on in the design process can easily eradicate some of these issues, believes Belloul, who thinks companies like his should be involved in conversations with building developers and architects from the outset.

“We’re generally the last people to be approached – we’re not seen as a priority,” says Belloul. “IT systems and fire systems take precedence over us even though communication and connectivity nowadays is important. But things are changing and more and more we are being approached early on.”

Another major challenge new buildings present is that it is proving harder and harder for mobile operators to get a phone signal into them. The use of ecological, high-insulation materials is one problem. “While that’s great for keeping warmth in or heat out, it does the same thing for RF signals,” says Johnson.

It’s an issue that is all too familiar to David Stephens, sales and business development director at Net Coverage Solutions. “The combination of concrete, steel and reflective glass often prevents signals getting into a building,” he says. Older buildings also present their own set of challenges, whether it’s the thickness of the walls or the shape of the rooms, adds Johnson.

Future shock
Regardless of whether or not the space is old or new, the introduction of new ‘smart’ technology into buildings of all ilks is also putting a strain on connectivity infrastructure.

“What we’ve seen change radically – and it’s a change that will continue – is the use of the Wi-Fi network as the backhaul system for a whole number of other technologies that have previously been adjacent to it,” says Johnson. “A good example of that is CCTV. It used to be that each camera had a separate cable or in some cases two cables running to it. Today we can manage that across Wi-Fi.”

The nature of how buildings are being used and occupied these days throws up a whole host of other challenges, according to Richard Bourne, CEO of StrattoOpencell. “Very rarely are you looking at single corporate tenants who all use the same mobile operator,” says Bourne. “So you need multi-operator connectivity, but how do you then deliver that in the most efficient way?”

Bourne’s company is one of a number of specialist operators that fixes poor in-building connectivity by deploying small-cell technology. He says there has been an enormous amount of innovation in small-cell technology over the past few years, which has made it more like an IT-level install with an IT-level install cost attached. “This has massively brought down the barriers to entry and made it an affordable solution.”

He adds that the major advantage small-cell technology has over distributed antenna systems, which would typically be deployed in larger buildings, is that although the latter allow multiple operators to use one access point, you do need to allocate space in equipment rooms to house base stations.

On the flipside, Derek Paton, president, international at Zinwave, says small-cell technology has its own shortcomings. “A lot of people are trying to sell them, but a lot of the time they’re not fit for purpose for where people are trying to deploy them,” explains Paton. “For instance, some operators don’t have 4G small cells available yet. They’re not suitable for large buildings like hospitals [see box].”

Connectivity and the great glass elevators
As with most things in life, when it comes to in-building connectivity it is very much a case of horses for courses. Johnson cites the example of the Bella Center – a major exhibition centre in Copenhagen. “Their Wi-Fi network had been deployed for a particular use-case where the centre had an average number of people on site,” he explains. “But as soon as they exceeded that average number of people, the existing Wi-Fi network had all kinds of problems in terms of poor connectivity and blackspots.”

Ruckus deployed 340 802.11ac Wave 2 access points throughout the centre. “We used less access points and we were able to accommodate those ‘bursting’ moments,” says Johnson.

It was a pretty common issue and solution, but sometimes building occupiers throw up more curve-ball challenges. Take the recent example of a large London-based media company. When it moved into its new office HQ it wanted connectivity throughout the building, including in the lifts. “To provide that solution we had to work with the lift manufacturer to devise a way of putting our equipment into the lift,” says iWireless Solutions’ Belloul. “They were glass lifts so it was even more difficult to put equipment in them, so we had to be quite ingenious in finding a way to do it.”

Thankfully many landlords and building operators are increasingly thinking about these challenges when they are designing buildings. FORE’s Demeroutis says the key things occupiers are looking for are speed, ease of connectivity and reliability.

As a result: “In all of our office buildings – both newbuild and refurbished – we put wireless backhaul in place to allow new tenants to plug into our network, and via the wireless backhaul link they can be connected to the internet and have digital connectivity, literally within an hour.”

It is a similar scenario at the Workspace Group – a flexible workspace company that operates 64 business locations across London. Chris Boultwood, head of client connected services, says connectivity is “critical” to the company’s customer base.

“If water were to stop coming to the property for a day, you would probably have one or two complaints, but if you have a connectivity challenge that lasts longer than five minutes, people will typically go home or find somewhere else to work,” says Boultwood. “The Wi-Fi we provide is the backbone of our connectivity proposition and without that working well, without it being secure and without us having building-wide coverage, it makes it very difficult for our customers to work and operate the way they want to.”

In addition to the Wi-Fi network the company offers its occupiers, which is provided by Excell Group, it also deploys small-cell technology from StrattoOpencell to ensure complete in-building coverage. “Most of our customers typically spend a large proportion of their day outside their [office] unit,” Boultwood explains. “So, they will have meetings in the communal space, in the front of house and they will probably pop into a meeting room [now] and then; so, we need to provide that connectivity building-wide.”

Boultwood adds that landlords and property managers have to take more ownership of the connectivity environment within their buildings.

“In the days of old you would have each individual customer within each individual [office] unit operating their own Wi-Fi network. That caused us huge issues, especially with the older Wi-Fi technology, which was 2.4GHz. It was quite a narrow spectrum, so there wasn’t much space for lots of different networks to coexist. It’s slightly better in the 5GHz space, but it’s still not ideal to have 100 units within one property operating their own individual Wi-Fi network.”

He says although Wi-Fi is vitally important to the company’s customers, mobile phone coverage is becoming increasingly important. “It’s really difficult to let [office] space when you’ve got zero bars on your phone when our guys are doing viewings,” says Boultwood.

The promise of 5G
Boultwood believes 5G will help to address some of these issues. Indeed, he sees a time when people won’t bother switching on their Wi-Fi at all because it will probably be faster to use a 5G connection – if you can get the 5G signal to penetrate the building in the first place, of course.

However, Belloul says 5G is going to present a host of new challenges for the industry to overcome, such as switching from copper backhaul to fibre to cope with the extra bandwidth.

Net Coverage Solutions’ Stephens thinks 5G could be a game-changer for in-building connectivity. “As 5G throughput can be far greater than Wi-Fi, you can almost see 5G eventually replacing Wi-Fi,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for in-building.”

Another major likely change is a convergence of different technologies. “Radio is moving more and more to an IP-based system and that then meets with Wi-Fi and the way 4G and 5G are designed as well; a more unified platform will make things easier,” says Belloul.

All of these things could come to pass in the next few years, which is why property owners and operators need to give them careful consideration now if they want to future-proof their buildings and offer occupiers the type of building-wide connectivity that they not only need, but also demand.

Hospital comms

As anyone who has ever visited a hospital will know, on-site mobile coverage is usually patchy at best. This creates issues both for staff and patients. One hospital that wanted to overcome these connectivity issues was Broomfield Hospital just outside Chelmsford (show above). Around two and a half years ago it called in Zinwave to improve coverage across the site.

“The hospital wanted better mobile connectivity,” says Derek Paton, president, international at Zinwave. “They didn’t like relying on Wi-Fi too much.”

Typical of many hospitals, Broomfield is a big sprawling building across a couple of storeys. Zinwave brought in systems integrator Herbert to work on the install, and after undertaking a site survey and drawing up a network plan that would have minimal impact on the operational hospital, the installation was completed in just three weeks.

Colin Eddison, technical director at Herbert, says the fibre and Cat 5 cables ran through the existing cable containment and the DAS antennas were placed on the building’s ceiling tiles. “It was a very light-touch physical installation,” says Eddison, who adds that the building already had ample cabinet and comms room space.

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