With more than 2,500 public safety agencies signing on for AT&T’s FirstNet and more in the pipeline, building owners should consider upgrades to their in-building wireless systems to meet public safety mandates.
FirstNet, a private-public partnership between the U.S. government and AT&T, was designed after 911 to enable first responders to communicate during critical emergency public safety missions.
“The ability for building occupants to make and receive calls and text messages is always desirable, but during an emergency it’s critical. The ability to dial 911, be accurately located, and to maintain communications until everyone gets home safe is a must,” said John Foley, general manager of Safer Buildings Coalition, in an interview with In-Building Tech.
While FirstNet aims to unify a nationwide public safety infrastructure, it does not address specific in-building wireless communications where radio signal transmissions are blocked due to building materials such as glass, concrete, and heavy metals.
The standardized nationwide emergency responder network deploys LTE high-speed wireless data communications technology in the 700 MHz frequency band and will eventually supplant the use of existing public safety frequencies.
As municipalities adopt FirstNet across the country, they are mandating building owners provide the necessary indoor infrastructure to ensure that their properties are capable of meeting FirstNet coverage requirements.
Building owners considering in-building wireless system upgrades to support the network will need to find solutions that not only work now but also well into the future.
Challenges to deploying FirstNet in-building wireless solutions
One of the biggest obstacles is the scale of the problem, with more than 6 million commercial properties in the U.S. poorly covered. The industry needs to find innovative ways to increase adoption while reducing costs for owners.
“When a building owner today steps up and funds an in-building system, they are faced with getting the wireless carriers to connect and handling ongoing maintenance and monitoring,” said Foley.
However, new players are emerging, and business models are changing as more providers are covering everything from financing, to maintenance, and regular system upgrades and carriers are developing business processes to make it easier to get connected, Foley says.
The Safer Buildings Coalition is collaborating with AT&T and FirstNet to develop guidance for building owners and code officials to outline the technical and business process requirements for ensuring FirstNet works inside structures by the end of this year.
DAS for in-building wireless
A distributed antenna system is one option for public safety agencies and building owners to use to ensure that they are ready for the FirstNet network and ready to meet current challenges of indoor coverage. A DAS comprises cabling, small remote units, and antennas that are distributed throughout a building and linked to a central hub. This hub, in turn, connects to the radio frequency source used by the mobile operators. A DAS signal, distributed to all parts of the building is separate from outdoor cellular towers- this adds capacity specifically dedicated to the building and guarantees a higher level of service performance compared with voice-over-Wi-Fi services. It is also capable of seamlessly connecting users as they move from the outdoors to indoors- critical in emergency response situations. There are several essential considerations building need to make when buying or upgrading their systems.
7 things to consider when planning for an in-building wireless solutions
1. Commission an radio frequency (RF) signal analysis. To determine whether your building has the adequate penetration of first responder radio and commercial cellular services it is essential to do an RF signal analysis of your structure to establish a baseline. These surveys are offered by many RF engineering firms, system integrators, and other wireless industry vendors. A qualified vendor should be able to tell you which specific frequencies bands are required in your jurisdiction. Once the baseline is understood, you can determine the level of need in your building and the particular areas where critical coverage is lacking.
2. Deploy pathways in conduit, vertical spaces and fire-stopped cores that comply with local ordinances and fire or building codes. The national fire codes are detailed in NFPA 72 & 1221, and IFC 510. Many jurisdictions have local amendments the specify additional requirements. It’s important to contact your local Fire Marshal, Fire Prevention Office, or Building Code official to learn these requirements. Qualified system integrators and other wireless industry vendors can assist with these inquiries.
3. Building owners should make sure that the in-building wireless communications system has the necessary functionality for use with the FirstNet network and should support 700-MHz FirstNet frequencies while still supporting existing cellular and internet of things (IoT) frequencies. While many buildings use 150 MHz, 450 MHz or 800 MHz today, when the FirstNet network arrives, the building will have to add 700 MHz support. Owners can opt for a wideband DAS that can support any frequency from 150 MHz to 2700 MHz. So it could support many different frequencies with a single layer of equipment, including FirstNet as well as seamlessly supporting future services with no need for additional hardware, such as cabling or remote antenna units. This will simplify both deployment and maintenance while keeping costs down.
4. A fiber infrastructure is a necessity. While fire codes differ and jurisdiction mandate either coaxial cabling or fiber as the transport layer of a public safety wireless communications system. An optical fiber infrastructure ensures high signal quality and strength at each remote unit and often can make use of existing extra fiber in a building to connect the public safety wireless system. Most public safety systems today employ coaxial cable, but FirstNet can be most efficiently deployed on fiber infrastructure making it a natural choice.
5. DAS antenna components should be certified for use in public safety deployments by the National Fire Protection Association and comply with various international fire codes. They should be protected by the appropriate enclosures to shield remote units from dust, smoke, and ash.
6. The system must offer symmetrical performance meaning that first responders must have a clear, strong signal wherever they are in the building, especially in places where the signal is not typically critical for commercial users, such as in stairwells and elevator banks. A DAS must provide a uniform signal at every antenna.
7. Select a future-ready system. A DAS should support today’s and tomorrow’s public safety frequencies. Users should not have to install individual remote units or modules to support one frequency or another or upgrade remote units when the FirstNet network comes.
Although the FirstNet network will take several years to roll out, having a plan now is critical., it is just too costly to place a pathway and other elements post-construction – after walls and ceilings are already closed up, said Foley.