Infrastructure Wireless

The Evolution of In-Building Wireless

The Evolution of In-Building Wireless

31 January 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Since the first, brick-like wireless telephones emerged in the 1980s and people started seeking indoor mobile connections, we’ve had a need for In-Building Wireless (IBW) solutions.

As macro cellular networks – the wide-area coverage provided by linked cell towers – struggled to penetrate walls and windows, we needed IBW solutions to supplement the network. So, by deploying indoor coverage within a certain area it was possible to provide seamless connectivity for people inside.

Since those first, early days, IBW solutions have continued to evolve. So how has IBW changed?


The Evolution of Wireless Networks and In-Building Wireless

As IBW solutions are designed to route cellular voice and data traffic onto wireless operators’ macro networks — a process called backhaul — they have evolved in parallel to wireless networks themselves.

But, it’s important to note that IBW is different from Wi-Fi. Though both may appear to conduct similar functions, they are differently designed, deployed and managed, and from a user perspective connection is made via a cellular network (3G, 4G/LTE) rather than through their device’s Wi-Fi service.

Looking at IBW’s earliest incarnations:

  • The earliest solutions included an off-air repeater on the roof of a building, connected by a coaxial cable in a passive distribution network that relayed signals from within the building to the outside, and vice versa. Such solutions were mainly used in sprawling indoor spaces like airports.
  • Initially, IBW was expected, to become as ubiquitous as electricity and plumbing in commercial, industrial, entertainment and other enterprise spaces. But due to the challenges in optimization and install costs, practical applications proved limited. And, at first, only wireless operators were able to offer IBW solutions. So, as building owners, managers, and architects had no direct control over IBW options, they had to prioritize installations based on opportunity and variable costs.
  • As a result, while IBW deployments continued to gradually go online, practical deployment and appeal was limited. In addition,being an operator-supplied solution, IBW faced a range of financial, legal and contractual challenges.

3G and Onward

  • Then through the late 1990s and early 2000s, wireless operators fully adopted 3G – and demand for 3G’s new internet capabilities grew rapidly. Buildings such as stadia and arenas began to experience explosions in usage – with large crowds wanting to get online at once.
  • But usage of this nature was often too much; where the load was too heavy, 3G network coverage would crash, resulting in outages that could last from hours to days.
  • Yet this created the perfect business case for IBW, and DAS deployments were increasingly installed in buildings, such as arenas, to cope with variable spikes in demand. Yet while this solved the technical issue, challenges remained. DAS lacks its own RF equipment (it must link out directly to a specific operator’s core macro network to operate) – making a solid business case elusive.
  • So, with multiple popular operators in most markets, in 2010, a group of national operators put forward an initiative to create multi-operator DAS platforms that could handle traffic from large crowds, no matter what operator each individual subscribed to. However, contractual and practical challenges caused the alliance to fall apart in 2014 as other business priorities took precedence over IBW.


Understanding In-Building Wireless Today

Today, IBW solutions are no longer a core part of wireless operators’ business models, though they continue to be deployed in limited circumstances. Yet demand has only increased, following the adoption of LTE and growing concentrations of connected users in indoor spaces.

In fact, the problem has grown faster than operators’ capacity to deal with it.

But, thanks to new solutions that simplify deployments, optimization and operation, IBW is rapidly becoming an enterprise initiative. Building owners, managers and architects are now stepping in to fill the void; taking ownership of the infrastructure and connecting to one or more operators’ core networks for a wider range of options.


Considering In-Building Wireless for Enterprise

The persistent challenge of ensuring seamless, high-quality, high-speed indoor connections continues to drive IBW innovation today. Now, IBW solutions are typically easier to install and less expensive to operate than ever before. A typical IBW solution like DAS or small cell costs about $1 per square foot, with an expected operational life span of 10 years.

Ultimately, IBW’s gradual growth reflects an ongoing need to enhance indoor connectivity. And despite a rocky history of operator control, we’re moving into an innovative new era of enterprise control – with modern solutions offering the latest in flexibility, plus more viable costs.

For enterprise owners and managers, the biggest challenge today is simply assessing what kind of IBW solutions (DAS, small cells etc) best suit their specific needs.

For infrastructure experts, it also means they must be prepared to offer the right IBW solutions for the right use cases at the right time. Maintaining up to date wireless training certification is a core part of this – those who invest in the training will be the ones who benefit from an ever expanding market.

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