Would you consider in-building wireless (IBW) to be the “next utility” – a modern convenience as accepted and expected as water or electricity? For many in the wireless industry, IBW is viewed as just that, and for good reason; we’ve evolved from tethered table phones to wireless, pocket-sized devices in a single generation. Throughout this change, the only thing that’s grown faster than wireless adoption, are user expectations for instant, fast, reliable performance, everywhere. But that could be considered a big ask. Indeed, while cellular communication largely meets our expectations of high-quality performance and speeds indoors and out, there are still occasions when we come across a ‘dead-zone’ or have a connection drop out. Clearly IBW and wireless still face challenges – which must be fast-addressed, especially as new generations continue to raise expectations of what a cellular service should deliver.
As we’ve previously explored, IBW and Wi-Fi can be easily confused; it’s common for a wireless user to search for an accessible Wi-Fi network upon entering a building. Yet Wi-Fi is not typically built to carry cellular traffic; and while Wi-Fi may help page load time, voice is still largely handled by the macro network; meaning Wi-Fi won’t prevent cellular ‘dead zones’ within a building. So while Wi-Fi has played a central role in providing traditional indoor connectivity, it will not be enough to meet cellular requirements as capacity demands increase. For this reason, it’s crucial that enterprise owners and building managers not only include, but prioritize, IBW when planning all new industrial, commercial and enterprise spaces.
With a growing need for in-building wireless, it may sound as though implementing IBW would be straightforward. Yet while attitudes are changing, multiple challenges remain, such as confusion over how to implement a true IBW solution (IBW must interface with operators’ macro networks), as well as cost, marketability, complexity and ownership issues.
One of the greatest IBW challenges lies in the fact that people are unaware that they need it. For example; employees, customers, visitors, tenants and more will all expect excellent cellular coverage inside the buildings they live and work in. Yet building owners tend to find little help from local wireless operators to ensure good connections – and lack the expertise to implement solutions to connectivity challenges. A lack of awareness of what IBW is, and why or how to implement and fund it, is often the first hurdle.
While modern IBW solutions have simplified and reduced the cost of IBW deployments, substantial time and money investment considerations remain, which must be justified by building owners, managers and architects with tenants or prospective tenants. In fact, according to a 2016 survey sponsored by CommScope and conducted by Coleman Parkes research, 49% of architects stated that ‘the cost of provisioning for IBW is typically too onerous for clients’ – making it the greatest challenge above other challenges in regulation, demand or implementation skillsets.
Who should be responsible for IBW? According to CommScope’s survey, only 1 in 5 building tenants believe the owner, manager or architect is responsible for providing indoor cellular cover – most believe wireless operators are responsible. And while some wireless operators offer limited IBW solutions, traffic is often restricted to their network only. Because of this, third-party providers are stepping in as intermediaries; they can facilitate multi-operator connections to fill the disconnect between tenant needs and wireless operators. However, their services are best used in larger environments if they are to remain cost-effective.
In contrast to the typically ‘plug-and-play’ deployment of Wi-Fi solutions, IBW implementation can be complex; as solutions interface with wireless operators’ macro networks they must meet more stringent regulations and use licensed frequencies (Wi-Fi can use unlicensed frequencies). IBW also requires specialized infrastructure (RF equipment and cabling) and require highly-skilled labor to install. Such complexity therefore results in deployment challenges that must be addressed to avoid limitations; particularly with 5G networks on the horizon.
‘Backhaul’ describes the mechanism of a network that moves aggregated cellular traffic on and off that network’s backbone. In the macro network, wireless operators have two options to handle backhaul; via directional point-to-point microwave antennas, or through high-bandwidth, low-latency fiber optic cables. Yet neither is practical or cost-effective in small or medium buildings – presenting the challenge of providing effective backhaul to support a connection for cellular users in such buildings. Recent solutions go some way toward simplifying backhaul; for example, it’s possible to run connections to the larger network on standard IT cabling infrastructure, or via more economical fiber-optic solutions that don’t require specialized labor to install.
Despite some challenges, the future of IBW is bright. Offering substantial progress for wireless convenience and performance, IBW provides massive reductions in wireless network latency, a boost in bandwidth and an enhanced wireless experience for building users (such as tenants and customers) – which in turn is great news for property values. This potential creates a compelling case for proactive investment – both in IBW solutions, and from an engineer’s perspective, in training. Indeed, even for small to mid-sized enterprise environments, the question is no longer if an IBW solution should be deployed, but what kind and how – IBW is fast becoming our next great utility.