The Fourth Utility: Why In-Building Cellular Coverage is Essential for Businesses

In-building cellular service is as essential to business as any utility, but it’s increasingly the business owner’s problem

In-building cellular service is as important to business as basic utilities like heat and power. Fast, ubiquitous, predictable, and reliable mobile service is not a luxury, it’s a basic business necessity. Making that service work is increasingly the problem of the building owner or the business occupying the facility space. And this trend is accelerating, according to Stephen Kowal, Chief Commercial Officer at Nextivity Inc., Nextivity’s award-winning Cel-Fi cellular solutions enable businesses to provide in-building coverage at a lower price point and with fewer installation woes as compared to traditional distributed antenna systems (DAS).

Over the course of the past five years, Kowal asserts, there’s been a shift: Communication Service Providers (CSPs) have spent billions to buy spectrum and create 5G macro networks. This has left little money for capital expansions inside buildings.

“That financial burden in most cases now lies with the building owner,” said Kowal. “If you think about gas, electricity, and water, that stops at the curb. The building owner is responsible for getting them in, and cellular is going to be like that going forward.”

At the same time, enterprise demand for cellular data communication is skyrocketing. More people and more businesses are using mobile data, and it’s gone from a “nice to have” to an absolutely baseline necessity. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is a policy that’s been adopted by many enterprises

“Tenants expect cellular coverage, or maybe it’s more accurate to say they demand it,” said Kowal.

Despite the expectation, establishing and maintaining in-building networks comes with its own set of unique challenges that businesses are sometimes ill-equipped to manage on their own. What’s more, it’s no longer enough to simply have good coverage in the building’s main office space, Kowal said. Enterprise security increasingly demands ubiquitous, predictable coverage throughout the entire campus, including difficult spots like stairwells and parking structures.

As more enterprises acknowledge the need for ubiquitous in-building cell coverage, Kowal said that Nextivity has seen growth in several vertical markets, starting with healthcare. Kowal sees more mobile apps used by hospitals and doctors driving this trend, along with the expectation from hospital visitors and patients alike that they will be able to use their mobile devices without any problems.

“Hospitals, over the past couple of years, have gone from ‘a nice to have’ to requiring cellular,” he said.

Large corporate installations represent another burgeoning market, he said.

“Think about this boom in large manufacturing and large data centers,” said Kowal. “These are just huge metal buildings that wreak havoc on cellular coverage.”

Education represents another strong market for Nextivity. “Both K-12 and higher ed,” said Kowal. “These were initially strong for us because of security needs, but if you look at the expansion of cellular devices used in the classroom, it’s really driven a secondary need for (reliable coverage) in the education space.”

Understanding the problem

“The market really understands things like Wi-Fi solutions. They use them at home, they implement them themselves, but when it comes to cellular solutions, they don’t really understand that.”

Enterprises have discovered through trial and error that solutions like Wi-Fi Calling simply fail to scale at the enterprise level, said Kowal. Other solutions for business have been adapted from low-end consumer offerings such as wideband amplifiers. Those devices introduce a set of unwelcome challenges, Kowal asserts.

“They’re just listening and rebroadcasting everything they hear,” Kowal said of wideband amplifiers. “It puts noise back into the network, and carriers do not like that.”

DAS equipped with fiber-based backhaul rules the enterprise roost as the de facto standard for in-building enterprise coverage. But traditional DAS systems are very pricey and take a long time to install, making them scalable for only a very small, very well-capitalized segment of the market. Provisioning and setting up the equipment alone can take months. Between that and regulatory paperwork, DAS deployment timelines can be up to a year, said Kowal. That can mean businesses looking for a cell coverage solution have to come up with expensive temporary interim workarounds.

Nextivity works with partners to flesh out solutions that work for their customers, Kowal said. Their customers present a wide range of technical proficiency in cellular communications, he added.

“Some just want service and don’t want to understand how it happens,” he said. Repeat buyers tend to come with more education. Getting buy-in from carriers has also been important, he said.

“The broad proliferation of our solutions has really been supported by the carriers,” Kowal said. From the carrier’s perspective, businesses that take a DIY approach should do so carefully, with respect to the carrier’s network functionality.

“Whether you’re the carrier or the enterprise, it doesn’t matter the level of your knowledge in this space. One thing is for certain: They want great cellular coverage. And we need these safeguards to ensure that we’re not affecting the macro network, and that we’re providing great access internal to the building 24-7.”

For more information on the importance of in-building cellular coverage, as well Nextivity’s unique approach to providing it, check out this limited podcast series that explores the ins and outs of this important topic here.

A version of this article was originally published by RCR Wireless News.

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