The technology of distributed antenna systems often can be more straightforward than the sometimes-quirky issues of commerce that make or break projects.
by PATRICK McLAUGHLIN
"It's not about technology. It's about who pays for it."
That was the in-a-nutshell summary of the reality of installing a distributed antenna system (DAS), in an enterprise or campus environment, as spoken by RF Connect's (www.rfconnect.com) Bob Butchko, during the question-and-answer portion of a roundtable discussion during the most recent BICSI conference held in January. Butchko made the comment toward the end of the conference session when answering a question from an audience member. When Butchko made the comment, he acknowledged that it was a reiteration of the points made by fellow panelist Rod Perry of Crown Castle (www.crowncastle.com) earlier in the session.
Butchko, Perry and Corning Mobile Access's (www.mobileaccess.com) Allen Dixon made up the panel that commenced with an introduction by The DAS Forum's (www.thedasforum.org) Tracy Ford, who provided some statistics on current and projected future use of mobile devices and the evident need for wireless-carrier infrastructure support within enterprise environments of all types.
As each of the panelists pointed out, however, the current state of the DAS business is the furthest thing from the clichéd line from the movie Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." An overriding message was quite the opposite: Don't you dare build a DAS infrastructure without confirmation that it is acceptable to--or, more preferably, already accepted by--the operator(s) whose spectrum the DAS will support.
Though the business and/or project coordination issues associated with DAS frequently dominate the narrative, those issues are inherently intertwined with the technological considerations involved. As such, this article addresses both. It also takes an overview look at the overall market's financial and competitive dynamics as recently outlined by analyst firms.
Crown Castle's Perry explained that in most cases, the answer to the question, "Who will fund this deployment?" will be one of three options: the operator/carrier, the user, or a third party. He detailed each scenario. The operator-funded model is seen most often in high-traffic and sometimes high-profile public places, such as stadiums, arenas, malls, airports and convention centers.
He pointed out that approximately 80 to 90 percent of the deployments his organization carries out for wireless operators are upgrades of existing DAS infrastructure from their current technology to 4G/LTE (long-term evolution). As a consequence, little of their budget remains for new projects in any type of environment.
Plus, he said, there remains among operators in general what he described as a "cultural bias" toward the use of towers and away from an in-building or on-campus DAS to resolve connectivity issues within the building or the campus. He made the analogy to a wartime offensive that favors the use of missiles over rifles. There remains a strong opinion that the deployment of a tower antenna nearby an enterprise will resolve connectivity issues without having to resort to the more-precise but more-labor-intensive and more-costly deployment of a DAS.
In a greenfield "user-pays" model, a newly constructed building includes the cabling, antenna, repeater and other infrastructure needed for the premises to support signal from one or more operators. Perry noted that wireless access is frequently referred to as the "fourth utility" when this type of build is being considered. Like power, water and heating/air-conditioning, access to wireless signals is viewed as an essential functional part of a building's operations. However, this scenario still represents a significant expense to the operator(s) involved because it/they do have to provide a radio at the facility in order for the signal to be distributed throughout the facility.
Furthermore, as Perry noted, the vendor/customer dynamic has shifted in recent years in a way that does not necessarily benefit the customer. It used to be typical for a user organization to provide wireless devices and service to employees. In such a scenario, the user chose a single wireless service provider for all users, and a sizable enough organization had scale that amounted to leverage with that provider. Today the landscape has shifted significantly to a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model, in which the individual users own the devices and consequently, use (or attempt to use) services from multiple operators within a single enterprise. With this being the situation, end-user organizations have lost whatever leverage they once had in the relationship with the operator(s). In many cases, this forces the user organizations to face the reality of funding the deployment of a wireless-support infrastructure.
The third scenario Perry described is a third-party-owned tower upon which antennas from multiple operators can reside. This setup is an outdoor public (as opposed to in-building or on-campus) infrastructure model--perhaps reflective of the aforementioned "cultural bias" toward towers and away from in-building/on-campus DAS. Furthermore, these third-party towers most often are found near the types of facilities that may attract operator-funded systems--arenas, malls, airports and the like.
Coordination is critical
After laying out these three funding models, Perry stated the overarching theme of the particular panel discussion he was part of, and in many ways of today's DAS business of environment: "Regardless of who pays, coordination is essential." Too many examples exist of end-user organizations unilaterally building the wired and wireless infrastructure to support operator signal(s) via DAS, only to find out from the operator(s) that the already-installed system is unacceptable for one reason or another.
That observation teed up the presentation by RF Connect's Butchko. He delivered his information in the form of a list of "top mistakes" frequently made during DAS deployment (see sidebar). Several of the points on his list relate directly to coordination efforts among parties involved in the deployment process and/or ensuring an installed system will meet operator demands.
Butchko specifically pointed out that in new builds, assessing the extent to which existing outdoor antennas will effectively send signal into a yet-to-be-constructed building can be more than just a guessing game. He specifically pointed to a software program called iBwave, making the analogy that it is the AutoCAD of the radio-frequency (RF) world. The package provides users with the ability to virtually construct a building of specified materials and model the reach of signals from towers into that building. Butchko's emphasis, though, was that the information provided by a software tool like this one is only a guideline. He made this commentary while expanding upon the common mistake "Lack of qualified RF engineering expertise." The takeaway was that it is essential to have a knowledgeable and experienced RF integration professional involved in the DAS deployment process from the beginning.
A key responsibility of the RF integrator is to be in constant contact with the targeted wireless operator(s) for the purposes, among others, of ensuring the operator(s)' willingness to place equipment at the customer site and validating the customer-owned DAS infrastructure meets operator requirements.
A point made more than once during the discussion was that such knowledgeable and experienced RF integrators do exist, and can provide end-user customers with assurance of operator participation. A question from the audience provided a current real-life example of such an occurrence. A state municipal building in the early stages of investigating a DAS deployment faced the prospect of funding an under-floor cabling install and was working with an integrator who sought to bill the customer for time spent negotiating with operators over the placement of their equipment at the site. The audience member asked, why put in the infrastructure without some assurance that the operator will support it? And, as it turned out, one operator agreed to fund the DAS installation at the facility. The response to that question amounted to: Work with an integrator who will guarantee the designs will be accepted, and who has worked with operators already. If an integrator is unsure whether or not an operator will accept a design, find an integrator who is sure. When considering integrators, it was suggested, one question to ask is the stage at which the integrator engages operators in the process. In short, the answer should be, immediately.
Avoiding the mistakes Butchko outlined in his presentation requires efforts on several fronts, including some thorough assessment of a user's own site and needs. Corning Mobile Access's Dixon discussed some of these essential steps. His presentation was titled "DAS and Other Small Cells: DAS for the Rest of Us," with the "rest of us" terminology referring to users who fund their own projects.
He emphasized the importance of a user organization understanding its own needs on several fronts. Such considerations include: Which wireless operator or operators' signal is the user willing to pay in order to receive? What else will the network have to support, such as public-safety radio communications? And are there other requirements that will be placed on the network--such as, for example, the telemetry often used in healthcare/hospital environments? Furthermore, it is essential to clearly understand the defined area of coverage. Does it include a single building or multiple buildings? Is it a new-construction (greenfield) build or will the DAS be installed in an existing facility? And are there special considerations--like the environment being a historical or high-value site in which the placement and/or even the appearance of antennas commands strong consideration and planning. In situations like this, aesthetics can be a driver of antenna type (i.e. omnidirectional or otherwise), which impacts the entire system's design.
Market research and analyst firms that have examined the DAS market have offered some insight into its strength as well as some of the dynamics at play within it. In the fall of 2012 Infonetics Research (www.infonetics.com) produced a document titled "Small Cell Coverage Strategies: Global Service Provider Survey," for which the firm interviewed wireless incumbent and competitive operators globally about their small-cell buildout plans. Infonetics' principal analyst for mobile infrastructure and carrier economics, Stephane Teral, characterized the survey by stating, "To the small cell vendors of the world, we know what you want to hear, but what you need to hear is that the small cell market simply isn't going to explode as many are predicting. The reality is, a majority of operators are still using distributed antennas in their mobile networks for coverage, and despite all the talk about using small cells to boost capacity in large venues, operators we interviewed believe DAS will remain a fundamental tool for malls, airports, stadiums and the like."
As it was explained at the recent panel discussion, "small cell" really is an imprecise term that describes an RF source that is smaller than the base stations wireless operators use today. They are, in essence, used to match capacity to the desired coverage. The term "small cell" comprises femtocells, enterprise-level femtocells, picocells and microcells. Infonetics' research showed that 73 percent of operators have deployed small cells, mostly in homes and enterprise environments, and they expressed having positive experiences with femtocells. Infonetics also reported that while top drivers of small-cell deployment are optimization of in-building coverage and high-data-use areas as well as the non-expandability of the macro networks, 80 percent of operators that took the survey said they currently use DAS in their cellular networks for coverage optimization. The firm pointed to interference with the macro network as the number-one barrier to small-cell deployment, and to small cells' self-organizing network capabilities as their top-rated feature.
Teral further commented, "Small cells are poised to play a major role in 3G and 4G network expansion, but operators are going to pick the right tool for their needs, be it coverage, capacity or both--indoor, outdoor or both--and small cells aren't always the right solution. The bottom line is, small cells--I'm not talking about residential femtocells here--remain a tiny market compared to macrocells, and will take time to reach meaningful penetration."
Elsewhere, ABI Research (www.abiresearch.com) examined the DAS market and issued a market forecast as well as a competitive-assessment report. ABI estimates the total market for in-building wireless DAS at $2 billion for 2013, split quite evenly with active DAS (mostly headend and remote units) accounting for $1 billion and passive DAS equipment (passive DAS, repeaters, cabling and antennas) also totaling $1 billion. ABI pegs the active DAS equipment market as growing 20 percent annually in North America and 15 percent annually worldwide. Passive DAS equipment, on the other hand, is expected to exhibit a modest-by-comparison growth rate of 6 percent in North America.
Aditya Kaul, practice director for mobile networks with ABI Research, said, "Active DAS is the fastest growing segment of the market today, as large public and commercial buildings need highly scalable, flexible, high-capacity, multi-technology and multi-operator solutions. While active DAS is where the action is, traditional passive DAS and repeaters will continue to see demand, especially in Asia Pacific and some parts of Europe because of their cost-effectiveness and operator familiarity."
ABI also published a competitive-assessment report in which it rated vendors based on their innovation and implementation of DAS equipment. The top three vendors according to ABI's rankings bear familiar names to professionals in the structured cabling industry. ABI ranked Corning Mobile Access, CommScope and TE Connectivity first, second and third, respectively, according to their innovation/implementation analysis.
In discussing the innovation scale, ABI's Kaul noted the emergence of "next-generation vendors," specifically naming Zinwave (www.zinwave.com), Alvarion (www.alvarion.com), SOLiD Technologies (www.solidtechusa.com) and Optiway (www.optiway.biz). Kaul said these vendors "are the ones to watch out for as they each bring unique DAS innovations that push the limits on cost, flexibility and scalability, especially when it comes to supporting multiple technologies and multiple operators on fewer infrastructure elements." Kaul added, "While traditional incumbents still dominate the DAS market due to their size and footprint, it is emerging vendors who are grabbing market share on back of their technology innovation.
"The DAS market has seen major consolidation in the last few years, and as these fresh, small innovative vendors emerge onto the scene, it won't be surprising if some of the large traditional base-station vendors like Ericsson or Huawei make acquisitions, and establish a presence of DAS equipment in the indoor-coverage market, which is a hotbed of activity right now."
The in-building/enterprise/on-campus market for DAS remains on a growth path by all accounts. As enterprise end users begin researching DAS deployment projects, they quickly learn that these systems are anything but cookie-cutter. They must be tailored to meet the needs of the user facility as well as the operator(s) whose signal(s) will be supported. Sufficient, specific expertise in this type of communications-system deployment is essential to its success. ::
Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.
7 common DAS project mistakes
In his portion of the panel discussion that took place during the most recent BICSI Winter Conference, Bob Butchko of RF Connect presented, and elaborated on, a list of seven mistakes commonly made during DAS installation projects. Any one of the mistakes can have significant repercussions, not the least of which is additional or wasted cost. Here is Butchko's list, upon which he elaborated during the panel discussion.
- Starting too late
- Poor initial assessments
- Lack of qualified RF engineering expertise
- Not using a reference design in the bid process
- Underestimating carrier-coordination effort
- Not allowing for sufficient space and power
- Poor coordination with other trades
BICSI makes some of the documentation from its conference sessions available online. For information about its 2013 Winter Conference and other events, you can visit www.bicsi.org.