When I was a kid, space was the final frontier. Turns out, the final frontier may actually be figuring out how to get reliable cell coverage in a highrise. Go figure.
It used to be so easy, right? I used to sit at the same desk every day, all day. I had a wired phone, a wired PC, and all my voice and data bits and bytes knew exactly how to find me. It was so reassuring—and so last century. Now, I still have a desk, but I rarely sit at it: cell phones, PDA’s, tablets, iPhones, laptops, notebooks, and aircards mean my data can follow me around anywhere and everywhere I go, and can be there when I need it. How totally cool is that!
Uh, not so fast. Go up in any skyscraper in any major city and your bars shrink faster than a glacier in an Al Gore movie.
But why? First it’s important to debunk a common misconception: Cellular calls do not use satellites. Oh sure, at some point the traffic may bounce off a satellite or two along the way, but the last mile for cellular traffic happens over cell towers. And although these towers are some 100+ feet tall, the cellular providers aim them where they will pick up the most traffic: at or near the ground.
So go above the 10th floor in a highrise building, and coverage will be spotty. Go above the 15th floor, chances are better than not you won’t have any coverage at all (i.e., Comerica Bank Tower, Trammell Crow Center, etc.). Even on lower floors, if the building’s structure is largely concrete, steel, or some other material that prevents cell signals from penetrating the building’s shell, your wireless device may prove useless for anything but Brick Breaker or Word Mole.
But that is changing. For highrise condos and small businesses, most all of the cellular providers now offer Femtocell devices, and many have for a while now. Typically, these devices connect to a broadband outlet, then collect cell traffic within a given space and send it out over the Internet.
But such technology is extremely limited, relative to the number of users it can support. So for larger applications, such as enterprise businesses, hospitals, hotels, college campuses, and stadiums, the technology being used to deliver cellular service is called distributed antenna systems. To deliver reliable service to upper floors in a high rise building, providers of this technology, in essence, work with all the major cellular providers to ‘pull’ cellular signals into a given building and then distribute it throughout via a wired, internal network.
Although only a handful of office buildings offer this technology today (One Arts Plaza, for example), I expect that number to grow. Simply put, cellular consumers like me are tired of being unable to use our cherished wireless devices wherever and whenever we want. And just because the guy who selected the new office location decided the view from the 48th floor would be good for morale, it is equally important that employees are able to get cell services. As soon as the early-adopter landlords realize they can gain a competitive advantage by setting up their buildings with such systems, the rest of the market will surely follow.
Meanwhile, if you are looking at new office space, it would be wise to find out how important reliable cellular service is to your employees—or your customers—because if your business is anything like most, the answer to that question may surprise you.
Randy Thompson is the managing director within Cushman & Wakefield’s corporate occupier and investor services group. Contact him at email@example.com.