Vendors focus on indoor coverage at Super Mobility

Bolstering indoor cellular coverage economically continues to be a challenge for mobile operators, and a number of vendors launched new products aimed at solving that problem at CTIA’s Super Mobility show this week.

The cost of in-building coverage solutions like traditional distributed antenna systems has been cost-prohibitive for small-to-medium buildings, and Nextivity is tackling that issue with a new approach to signal boosters: networking active, intelligent head units together in clusters, which Nextivity CEO Werner Sievers described as an active DAS that can provide improved cellular coverage at a cost of around eight to ten cents per square foot. Sievers said the overall cost is 1/5 to 1/6 the cost of comparable active sytems.

Nextivity’s Cel-Fi Quatra auto-configures itself, can be installed by IT pro and “most importantly to operators, it’s completely safe to their networks,” Sievers said, adding that the signal boosters will take themselves off the air if they detect issues, and can be used to boost signals from either a small cell or a nearby macro site. Sievers said that Quatra is aimed at providing indoor coverage for buildings between 50,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet, with up to four of the devices able to be networked together.

Although signal boosters have not typically been seen as a major player in heterogeneous networks, Nextivity and fellow signal booster vendor Surecall are making the argument that more intelligent technology means that signal boosters are a cost-effective option for indoor coverage that can operate in ways that protect operator networks instead of being sources of interference.

Sievers said that new spectrum is expensive, and the gains from new features such as advanced MIMO techniques are “marginal gains” that can take years to fully realize. Densification has been the industry’s main answer to a taxed macro network, he added, but “densification has its own set of problems,” including the ever-present issue of interference with the macro network, and the difficulty and expense of scaling small cells with wireless experts.

“There are more IT people than there are RF engineers that can go inside a building, audit it and plan and execute a network indoors that will solve the coverage issues,” Sievers said.

In a new white paper commissioned by signal booster company Surecall, analyst firm iGR concludes that “clearly, for the majority of consumers there are still significant improvements to be made to cellular network coverage, especially indoors. The question for the mobile operators is how they can solve this problem economically? And how can coverage be improved in the workplace where a mobile operator may not have access to the building?” iGR identified a number of benefits to using signal boosters in a heterogeneous network context, including that they are operator agnostic, often have multi-band support but can be configured to boost specific signals; and are easy to install, so that they don’t require a radio frequency engineer. One of the biggest pluses, though, is cost.

“iGR believes that the cost of deploying a signal booster in a commercial building is between $0.70 and $1.00 per square foot of coverage – this cost includes the equipment plus installation,” according to the white paper. “For comparison, consider that a DAS … which is typically used in large buildings ranges in cost from approximately $1.50 to over $4.00 per square foot of coverage.”

For a deeper look at cost, usage and service level agreements for providing indoor wireless networks with workable ROI, consulting group Wireless 20/20 launched a new analysis tool called WiROI that relies on big data analysis to help aims to help mobile network operators, venue owners and neutral host providers calculate under what circumstances it will be profitable for them to invest in in-building networks. Wireless 20/20 says that the tool can simulate tens of thousands of smartphone users within a venue over 10 years and examine the cost-effectiveness of active DAS, small cell and Wi-Fi networks, model service-level agreements and various methods for monetizing an in-building network. WiROI can help make the business case for an in-building network and provide data for negotiations, Wireless 20/20 said.

“The question we often get asked is who should pay for the installation and operation of [in-building] networks,”  said Haig Sarkissian, principal consultant at Wireless 20/20, in a statement. “Our new WiROI tool allows building owners and neutral host service providers to answer this question by pinpointing the business models that provide the best wireless service for the building owner and its tenants, positive ROI for the neutral host operator, while offering improved economics and speed of deployment for MNOs.”

Sarkissian will demo WiROI during a talk today at the Tower and Small Cell Summit co-located with Super Mobility.

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