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How to enhance a campus’s cellular signal for safety.

Cell phones have helped expand education far beyond textbooks. Now, they also play a critical role in emergency responses at schools. According to the National Emergency Number Association, more than 80% of 911 calls are made from wireless devices in most areas of the United States.

As a result, many educational institutions recognize the need to improve cellular reception in school facilities for the safety of their staff and students. Given the attention this issue has had in recent years, school districts have an obligation to provide adequate coverage or they may risk potential liability claims.

The Laredo (Texas) Independent School District, like many institutions, has recognized a need to fortify communications in its facilities, says Miguel Munoa, assistant superintendent of technology services. “Our students’ safety and security are paramount,” says Munoa. “Having reliable communications through their mobile devices is now a basic need at our campuses for emergency communications and mass notifications.

“Poor cellular coverage is common on school campuses where traditional architecture and design often block cellular signals from penetrating into and throughout buildings. Building materials, such as concrete and cinder blocks, can block cellular carriers’ macro signals, which in turn creates spotty coverage or “dead zones.” At the same time, trying to have new cell towers or sites installed can be expensive and time-consuming.

This was the case with the Laredo school district, which has about 24,000 students and more than 4,500 employees spread throughout 20 elementary schools, four middle schools, and four high schools. Many of those schools had dead zones throughout their facilities because of concrete wall construction.

“Laredo ISD tried a wide array of off-the-shelf solutions with very mixed results – everything from deploying carrier microcells to enabling wi-fi calling on our network and purchasing boosters,” says Munoa. “None of these solutions really addressed our needs.”

Meeting technology and safety requirements

Educational institutions may find it difficult to meet their specific needs among the several technologies available on the market. For example, small cells can improve cellular service in a facility, which may be needed if there is a poor outdoor signal. Small cells broadcast signal over a limited but designated footprint, and, in most cases, each carrier requires its own small cell. As each small cell can generally cost between $3,000 and $5,000 and require ongoing monthly expenses for data backhaul, using this technology alone for improved cellular coverage for multiple carriers on a large campus may prove to be expensive. On the other hand, wi-fi calling is an inexpensive technology and can work well in home applications, but often provides a low quality of service. Inconsistent connectivity and dropped calls may create problems during an emergency.

Safety requirements also should be considered. In accordance with guidelines set by the Safer Buildings Coalition for location accuracy when emergency calls are placed from a mobile phone from inside buildings, the Laredo district wanted to make sure that staff and students could make 911 calls from anywhere within its facilities in an emergency. For example, in a scenario where staff and students are instructed to shelter in place, they must be able to call 911 to communicate their location to first responders.

“An in-depth knowledge of both safety requirements and cellular technology is essential to effectively address cellular coverage issues in today’s schools,” explains William Gray, chairman and CEO of Wytec International, a provider of cellular solutions. Wytec is a member of the Safer Buildings Coalition and works directly with Southwest Research Institute in developing safer and more secure cities and schools.

Cellular enhancement in today’s schools

According to Gray, cellular enhancement in schools strengthens a single or multiple carrier signal within a building. Single carrier solutions have become less of a consideration because of greater smartphone technologies supporting more advanced applications. “The areas that required coverage in this initial project at Laredo ISD ranged in size from 10,000 to 200,000 square feet,” explains Gray. “The district wanted a solution that could receive signal off-air from the cellular towers and amplify the signal for all major U.S. carriers. They also required the least amount of intrusive cabling and wanted a system that could be monitored in real time.”

DAS technology is commonly used to improve cellular reception inside buildings. These systems use an outdoor antenna, usually placed on the roof of a building, to capture the signal from a cell tower and then amplify and distribute that signal to antennas placed inside the building, which then rebroadcast the signal to students and faculty.

There are three types of DAS solutions: passive DAS, distributed over coaxial cable; active DAS solutions, typically based on fiber-optic technologies, deployed to larger facilities 500,000 square feet and up; and newer hybrid active DAS systems, which combine components of passive and active systems.

A passive DAS is an analogue system that generally provides inconsistent signal for the different carriers in different areas of the building. It often takes longer to install because of the type of cabling used, which adds costs. An active DAS is the most expensive type of system, costing as much as three to 10 times more than a passive DAS, and is primarily for large venues such as stadiums and airports. Active DAS also requires contract negotiations with each carrier and could take eight to 18 months to install.

The hybrid active DAS was the technology chosen for Laredo. It has built-in digital intelligence, is designed for midrange facilities, and can be installed in weeks.

“The system designed is simple, manageable, scalable, reliable, and carrier-agnostic,” says Munoa. “The result is enterprise-grade service delivery that provides consistent communications for all of our students and teachers, while giving them peace of mind as they carry out their day-to-day activities at our campuses.”

Munoa says the feedback from students, staff, and families has been positive. The Laredo district is now focused on deploying the system at all of it elementary, middle, and high school campuses. That work is scheduled for completion by December 2022, he says.

Cellular enhancement solutions

Schools evaluating solutions to improve cellular connections on a campus, Gray recommends asking these questions to get the most from a system:

• Is the solution unconditionally network safe?
• Does it offer an exceptional coverage footprint?
• And is it carrier approved for 3G/4G/LTE voice and data?
• Does the solution offer a “future proof” capability?

A solution provider should have not only in-depth knowledge about cellular technology, but also an understanding of a school’s safety requirements. Also, check references to evaluate a company’s customer service, support, and ability to deliver on projects on time and within budget.

A version of this article was originally published by American School & University