Thanks to excellent macro cellular network coverage, consumers and enterprises have become accustomed to having quality wireless connections everywhere they need them. But as our reliance on wireless increases, the need to deliver coverage in all kinds of in-building environments is becoming more important. The focus on indoor wireless coverage has begun to shift from the largest venues to the “middleprise” where the responsibility for deploying indoor networks frequently shifts to building owners and neutral-host providers. Indoor environments create their own unique set of challenges, including not only physical and structural obstacles and space constraints, but also strategic considerations, such as having to deal with dozens of tenants during the deployment process.
ExteNet Systems is skilled in both outdoor and indoor networks. The company recently named Greg Spraetz to head its indoor coverage business. He sat down with the Wireless Infrastructure Association to talk about the opportunity and challenges associated with indoor wireless networks as well as the implications of new spectrum coming to market, the role of fiber with indoor networks, and the importance of data centers.
What is the in-building wireless opportunity? Who needs quality indoor coverage and why?
With over 5.6 million commercial buildings in the U.S., the in-building wireless opportunity is massive. Most marquee properties, those over 1 million square feet in major metro areas, have deployed in-building wireless solutions already. The next tier of buildings – the so-called “middleprise”-- are those under 1 million square feet that are now being actively engaged, as connectivity needs are pretty universal today. This next wave of buildings presents different challenges though, both technically and financially. We need architectures and solution alternatives that are scalable, feature-rich and still forward looking. Improving property desirability and its underlying value are the ongoing challenges for property owners and consequently, they are increasingly funding the network infrastructure.
What makes in-building deployments different from outdoor deployments?
First, the customer base is different. We serve two primary customers for in-building mobile connectivity deployments – wireless carriers and the building owners -- who often have very different objectives. The carriers want to offload their outdoor macros and provide a seamless and quality service. The building owners typically are more concerned about required equipment space and aesthetics. Secondly, if it’s an existing building that we’re retrofitting, then we must engage its tenants and understand the hours we can work while we build out the network. With one marquee property in Manhattan, we ended up negotiating with 190 separate tenants about how and when to enter their space so we could install the network; this is not a trivial exercise. Likewise, when we did a network for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which essentially operates 24/7, our hours and methods of operation were highly specialized, plus staff had to go through safety training to understand proper procedures when working on live tracks. In short, in-building deployments pose a host of challenges across deployments, some common but many project-specific.
Some people might think indoor wireless coverage is as easy as plugging in Wi-Fi hotspots. Describe how a quality indoor network is designed and what building owners need to know.
Cellular and Wi-Fi networks are quite different, both in terms of network design and quality of service (QoS) requirements and we often need to educate building owners to understand that not all wireless is created equal. The first step to designing and building an indoor cellular network is to gather requirements from all the key constituents. These primarily come from the carriers and the venue owners. Unlike a Wi-Fi system, which can be deemed “best effort,” indoor cellular networks have highly stringent carrier-specific guidelines and targets for voice and data throughput and quality. It becomes critical to understand the requirements across all constituents when planning a new cellular system. After gathering these requirements, highly skilled engineers create 3D models of the entire venue to accurately predict the performance of the network. This is a critical step that is non-existent in most Wi-Fi systems deployed.
Then the wireless carriers will require benchmark tests of the existing signal coming from outside the venue to determine its usability and whether the indoor system needs to account for it (e.g. let users access the external network) or overcome it (e.g. treat the outside signal as interference and provide a dominant signal from inside the venue). Upon completion of the above, the engineers can produce a detailed in-building network design and expected network performance.
What are some of the future trends and developments that could shape the indoor wireless space?
One that comes to mind and that is grabbing headlines is around the potential of unlicensed or shared spectrum like CBRS (Citizen Broadband Radio Service). ExteNet has commercial outdoor “pre-CBRS” type deployments serving the Wireless ISP space today that utilize our own LTE packet core. We also believe in CBRS as a high-value solution for the in-building space. Leveraging the right partner, a building owner or local community can deliver a customized LTE solution for their residents, tenants, guests, visitors, etc. By using CBRS, they can enable high-speed access and content delivery for their local user community. Incorporating that same LTE packet core, a network solution can be customized from a functionality, performance and content standpoint to best serve the constituents and ultimately deliver a high-quality user experience. We see notable potential here. We are leading the curve, having filed for special temporary authority from the FCC to operate CBRS and are aligning our eco-system to bring CBRS to market, with the in-building segment being a prime opportunity.
What role will fiber play in indoor wireless deployments in the future?
Fiber is the great enabler for today’s network infrastructure, and we see it moving further to the network edge as more devices and users need to be connected. As a result, fiber is routinely deployed in-building such that a menu of advanced communication services and applications can ride on top of it. This ranges from enterprise services like Gigabit Internet access, Ethernet cloud access connectivity at a data center, to an in-building DAS or small cell infrastructure supporting mobile connectivity to managed fiber for intelligent building management systems that can operate services like HVAC, security systems, and digital signage. We utilize our own in-building fiber solutions as the cornerstone of the infrastructure we design by deploying high fiber strand counts to support a variety of use cases for today and for tomorrow. For fiber, it really is a case of build it and they will come! We expect our fiber-based infrastructure to be in place for many years.
What are some of the verticals where indoor wireless is in most demand, and what types of applications are most in demand today?
We support a variety of verticals, but in our experience, there is a high level of activity by ownership and the carriers around commercial office space, sports and entertainment venues, hospitality properties and major healthcare facilities. Property owners have realized that reliable in-building wireless service impacts spend and lease behavior by improving the visitor experience. It’s a highly desirable amenity for the tenants and often referenced as the fourth utility. Enterprises rely on the cloud and hosted services for much of their operations. If connectivity goes down, business is likely impacted, especially in the financial space where speed can be an advantage for activities like high-volume trading, so unnecessary latency or downtime can be costly. Sports and entertainment venues require high-bandwidth networks as social media usage is becoming universal and venues increasingly go paperless. There is a long list of examples that cross multiple verticals.
Data centers are getting a lot of attention lately. What is the role of the data center in in-building deployments?
We see on-site data centers, also known as Micro Data Centers (MDC), deployed in multi-tenant office buildings as a complement to the advanced in-building fiber connectivity infrastructure being put in place. Having this component localized offers some unique advantages to owners and tenants. The building owner benefits, because it’s another key amenity desired by today’s enterprises they can use to differentiate, especially those in the sought-after TAMI (Technology, Advertising, Media, IT) segments. The tenants benefit by not having to dedicate their own leased space to building out a data center, so they save space and their “tenant improvement dollars” for other key needs. This also helps limit the amount of local staff needed by the enterprise to manage this resource. Today, when so many enterprises rely on hosted applications and the cloud to operate, having an MDC on site in a secure and 24/7 managed facility, delivers tangible advantages around cost, security, and performance. Since most everybody is connected, having the data and content closer to those who are accessing it is the new model.
What are some interesting or unique deployments ExteNet has worked on?
We recently completed the new Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, which just had its grand opening in September and is the brand-new home for the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette University basketball team. The wireless infrastructure in this state-of-the-art venue is capable of hosting five wireless carriers and leverages 4x4 MIMO technology to deliver a high-quality connected experience while supporting the eventual transition to 5G. Another example is the Bank of America Plaza, the tallest building in Dallas. ExteNet enabled the building with dedicated fiber throughout, a secure carrier meet me room (MMR) that hosts 15 carriers, and a micro-data center, all put in place to serve the various connectivity needs of the building’s tenants.
Greg Spraetz is Senior Vice President and General Manager of ExteNet’s Enterprise Network Solutions Group. He has more than 20 years of sales, marketing, operations, and management experience in the telecom and networking space. As head of the Enterprise Network Solutions business unit at ExteNet Systems, Greg oversees sales, business development, strategy, and implementation teams dedicated to serving the in-building and enterprise markets. Prior to ExteNet, Greg was the EVP of Sales and Marketing for Conterra Broadband, a regional fiber and microwave solutions provider serving wireless, government, enterprise, and wholesale customers. Previously, Greg served as the SVP of Wholesale and Carrier Services covering North America and Asia-Pacific regions for Level 3 Communications.