17 Jun 2014

Indoor Wireless Coverage: the Challenges

Morgan Kurk, Vice President of Wireless, CommScope looks at the technologies and techniques required for in-building wireless coverage.

Wireless coverage is essential in today’s connected world. The volume of worldwide mobile data traffic reached 8.1 exabytes in 2012, according to analyst firm Analysys Mason (i). StatCounter reports that mobile data traffic from smartphones and tablets accounts for 28 percent of global Internet traffic, a figure only set to grow further (ii). With demand increasing dramatically across operator networks, consumers expect and depend on a seamless user experience from their service.

When it is taken into account that upwards of 80 percent of mobile data traffic is indoors—and most of this is accessed through smartphones and tablets—we see a clear mandate for mobile network operators to adopt a wireless strategy that ensures robust coverage and ever increasing capacity indoors.




Supporting wireless services inside buildings is not new. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have been dealing for years with the challenges of providing wireless coverage in areas where concrete walls and glass block RF signals. But in-building wireless solutions are, today, more about providing capacity than just ensuring reliable coverage. The primary driver for this requirement is smartphones, and the ease of access to data-intensive applications that people use them for. At present, the rate of wireless data consumption doubles every 1.5 years or less, creating an even greater imperative for expanding capacity.

Data consumption

Not only are the number of devices used for accessing data increasing but the way we consume data is becoming much more intensive. Websites and applications are using more bandwidth than ever and are accessed not just on desktop computers, but also via mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. In fact, mobile internet browsing is projected to overtake desktop browsing for the first time in 2014. The way we use mobile devices, for example, to view and post on social media sites, stream videos and access data hungry apps, means users require much greater bandwidth. Watching a video on a smartphone uses the same capacity on a network as sending 500,000 text messages simultaneously.

Another key driver for this explosion of data consumption is the continued adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) in the workplace. Employees having access to more devices ultimately puts additional pressure on indoor networks in the enterprise. Juniper Research has predicted that there will be more than one billion employee-owned smartphones and tablets in use in the enterprise by 2018 (iii). Yet only about two percent of the 30 billion square meters of worldwide commercial real estate is covered by an in-building mobile wireless system, according to CommScope calculations.

All this extra demand impacts wireless performance. Additional bandwidth is required to avoid connections becoming slow, jittery or dropping out altogether. Furthermore, with the increased transition toward network convergence, the wireless network has to cope with supporting services such as VoIP and videoconferencing. These services require high bandwidth and suffer particularly badly if there are quality issues, usually as a result of limited network capacity.

Across North America and Europe, many MNOs are currently rolling out Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. The GSMA predicts some 465 LTE networks will be in operation in 128 countries worldwide by 2017 (iv). But it is not only the wireless spectrum that is shifting – the entire industry is in a high state of change, with consumers demanding more and more from their network providers for less money from every location they visit or spend time at.

Today, for operators and those with the responsibility of managing such systems within buildings (for example, IT departments and building and facility managers) there is increasing pressure to consider wireless coverage as being as essential as wired access to the local area network (LAN). This needs to be done at the earliest possible stage of building planning to ensure a seamless level of access to the wireless network from within a building rather than from outside.

Where once, an indoor wireless solution saw the deployment of a single technology from a single operator, now multi-operator, multi-technology, multi-band systems are needed for the broadest possible access and capacity requirements. So why do so few indoor networks exist when there is so much demand from consumers?

In building

In-building wireless solutions began with a focus on extending coverage using an “outside-in” approach - relying on signals from the macro network - regardless of the type of venue. With the increase in data traffic in many markets, operators began to focus on creating additional capacity inside the building, offloading the macro network as part of a new “inside-in” strategy, including use of distributed antenna systems (DAS). This approach requires greater infrastructure investment, so MNOs began investing in large locations, such as airports and stadiums, with high levels of traffic and therefore a better return on investment.

With the increased levels of business data requirements from enterprise buildings, this “inside-in” approach is now being extended to a much larger number of venues. Increasingly, MNOs are looking at smaller sized buildings to ensure good network performance, protect their reputation and satisfy their customers. Indoor solutions are about putting capacity and coverage where the users are—and users are everywhere, but spend the majority of their time indoors.

Possible solutions

A variety of solutions are currently being considered by operators to handle the needed capacity for subscribers:

  • Pico or femto cells or mini remote radio heads: These solutions are targeted at adding capacity in small to medium buildings, for one operator only.

  • Concealed, integrated metro cells: These are basically mini macro sites, designed to address the common problems of site acquisition and licensing in congested, urban areas. Metro cells are an outdoor solution but which must be integrated into the overall network, just like other small cell solutions. The remote radio unit, antenna and other RF path equipment are concealed in one monopole type structure.

  • Distributed antenna system (DAS): The original small cell. DAS has been a proven choice for over 25 years. It is predicted that in the next 10 years we will see explosive growth in DAS, from 1 million DAS nodes deployed annually in 2018, to over 100 million in 2023 (v). DAS networks often are multi-operator, multi-technology, high capacity solutions.

Although all of these solutions have their pros and cons, they each have specific use cases. Each solution can support specific application scenarios but the need for multi-operator, multi-band and multi-technology is often present. As mentioned above, DAS is a good option for providing these requirements, but it is often perceived as an expensive option that is only suitable for a few high-end projects. Ease of installation, cost and time-to-deploy are issues that DAS vendors need to tackle.

What we must consider in the enterprise is that it is predominately IT professionals who are managing technology and communications inside commercial buildings. The RF installers typically handle the outdoor macro network and whilst there is a subgroup that specialise in DAS, there is simply not enough of them to support the full data tsunami indoors.

Therefore, the ideal solution for enterprise wireless needs to simplify design, installation and maintenance as well as offering multi-operator, multi-band and multi-technology support. It needs to be cost effective for enterprises but also allow MNOs to recoup some of their investment in LTE networks. In addition, the solution also needs to ensure a robust user experience and deliver quality signal to customers consuming data.

Unified wireless structure

We believe the industry needs a unified wireless infrastructure platform designed around IT-based structured cabling architecture, making it friendly to both wireless operators and business enterprises alike. The flexibility, scalability and simplicity of such a system could resolve the issues associated with rapidly changing indoor coverage and capacity demands. Having a unified wireless network that can scale to building size and is technology and spectrum adaptive is essential. The perfect solution will make DAS simple and unify the local area and wide area networks.

As previously stated, the world lacks people who have RF design expertise. This limits the deployment of traditional DAS networks at a time when deploying indoor networks within enterprise buildings is increasingly in demand. The best solution must simplify and optimise installation, empowering IT professionals to deploy these systems easily in enterprise buildings.

It’s time for a ground-breaking approach to in-building wireless systems, and that change is happening now. Here at CommScope, we are very excited about what the future holds for indoor wireless coverage.

References

i Analysys Mason: Mobile data will grow 6.3 times between 2013 and 2018 and growth will be strongest outside Europe and North America http://www.analysysmason.com/About-Us/News/Insight/Mobile-data-Oct2013/

ii Internet2Go, February 28, 2014 http://internet2go.net/news/mobile-platforms/mobile-devices-generating-30-global-us-internet-traffic

iii Press Release: BYOD Trend Drives Number of Consumer Owned Mobile Devices Used at Work to Exceed 1bn by 2018, finds Juniper Research http://www.juniperresearch.com/viewpressrelease.php?pr=413

iv GSMA: Global LTE network forecasts and assumptions, 2013-17 https://gsmaintelligence.com/analysis/2013/11/global-lte-network-forecasts-and-assumptions-201317/408/

v Mobile Experts, “DAS: Absorbing Small Cells and Wi-Fi” http://www.mobile-experts.net/

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About the author

Morgan Kurk serves as the senior vice president and Wireless segment leader at CommScope and he has had more than 20 years of experience in the wireless industry. His group is responsible for the strategy and development of wireless infrastructure from tower solutions to distributed antennas including product lines such as coaxial and fibre cable, antennas and filters, amplifiers and repeaters, and microwave dishes and consulting.

CommScope has played a role in virtually all the world’s best communication networks. We create the infrastructure that connects people and technologies through every evolution. Our portfolio of end-to-end solutions includes critical infrastructure our customers need to build high-performing wired and wireless networks. As much as technology changes, our goal remains the same: to help our customers create, innovate, design, and build faster and better. We’ll never stop connecting and evolving networks for the business of life at home, at work, and on the go.

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