Gone are the days when merely having good smartphone coverage would satisfy your employees, tenants, and guests. Savvy landlords and facility managers know that enhanced 4G and 5G wireless networks are necessary to support applications that help improve operating efficiencies, cut costs, and grow revenue. However, those considering the deployment of a distributed antenna system (DAS) are faced with a dilemma. That is, what can they do now to ensure that implementation of their DAS has a cost-effective upgrade path that supports future technologies and applications?
That question, and its answer, are linked to the network’s future ability to address the unique needs of the venue, to be frequency and technology agile, modular in nature, and able to minimize the disruptions typically associated with an upgrade. Let’s look at five key elements in developing a future-ready, in-building distributed antenna system.
#1 Conduct a wireless needs assessment (WNA)
Identifying the current and anticipated wireless applications and technology needs of your internal and external stakeholders is an essential first step in creating future-ready network infrastructure. Begin by polling critical stakeholders across departments at the venue.
- Create a checklist of existing networks and the wireless applications they support. Include a list of near term (1-2 years out) and longer term (3-5 years) technologies and applications that are expected to be needed.
- Ask department managers if they are independently planning network upgrades with their budgets and resources. Future-ready systems are available that converge network systems on one infrastructure. This helps eliminate the need for costly and disruptive parallel systems.
- Identify the critical coverage areas at your venue. Be sure to include buildings that may be added in the future. Identify the number of wireless users in those areas, wireless service providers, and the applications (voice communications, texting, internet-driven applications) that are in use. This step helps establish the type of system that may be needed and the value associated with installing a future-ready network.
- The WNA should also include financial considerations that include not only the capital investment and operating costs but also the ROI associated with the deployment. What are the value adders linked to a future-ready system? Think of the total cost of ownership over a 3, 5, 10-year term.
- Assign an individual or small committee to coordinate plans for in-building wireless network deployments at your venue.
This collaborative, strategic approach will shape discussions with network design engineers, equipment vendors, and installation contractors. A vendor that provides a unified solution that combines Wi-Fi and cellular technologies may be best suited to execute your future-ready wireless strategy. Cost-effective plans can be made to lay-in spare, dark fiber, and cable in-conjunction with current infrastructure buildout activity. The choice of active electronics that drive the future-ready system can be evaluated based on interoperability requirements outlined in the strategy. Future space and power to support the expanding infrastructure can be provided at today’s costs.
#2 Consider zone-based network architectures
In mid-sized to large venues traditional hybrid cellular distributed antenna systems (DAS) designs involve running fiber in the risers to IDF’s, and then horizontal runs of bulky copper cabling to service antennae. These systems have several shortcomings, including limitations on their capacity to support an expanding array of applications that require cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity, and significant disruption at the venue during a retrofit.
Zone or grid-based network designs provide scalability and interoperability needed for a future-ready network. Rather than relying on copper cabling that runs down hallways or above ceilings to coverage antennae, the zone-based design brings fiber, digital power, high capacity gigabit ethernet cable delivered to zones. These zones are closer to the end user, and the cellular and Wi-Fi driven applications that support them. These future-ready systems offer much less venue disruption when additional services are added to the network. Less disruption translates into lower labor costs for upgrading the network.
The work that was done during the wireless needs assessment will provide the framework for deciding the appropriate design methodology of your distributed antenna system. The building size, number, and needs of the end-user, and budget may support the installation of a more traditional DAS configuration. However, current trends involving 5G and associated applications, support a future-ready grid or zone based design that brings high capacity infrastructure closer to the end user.
#3 Engage an advisory firm that will independently represent you
Decisions related to selecting the best future-ready DAS network are challenging. Understanding technology options can be complicated and confounding. Once the word gets out that you are considering a DAS, you will be bombarded with inquiries from a large number of equipment manufacturers and installation contractors, each with their own perspective of what’s in your best interest. Those complexities are compounded by the expense associated with deploying a future-ready DAS.
In recent years vendor-agnostic DAS consultancy firms have emerged that specialize in representing the developer/facility operator. These in-building wireless advisors have a mastery of multiple DAS solutions, including those that are emerging as future-ready alternatives. The DAS consultant will partner with the venue operator in managing the tasks associated with establishing the objectives of the project. The consultant then pairs those objectives with vendors who offer a best-fit, future-ready solution.
Activities of the consultant may also include procuring funding for the project and managing engagements with the wireless carriers. Vendor selection tasks can involve developing a competitive bid process using an RFP or request for quote. In most cases, the consultant will act as a program manager who ensures that the DAS meets the specifications of the project.
Complementing the role of DAS consultant are design firms that offer equipment-agnostic distributed antenna system design services. These firms consist of in-building wireless design engineers who are knowledgeable in understanding future ready networks and skilled in designing systems that are the best fit for you. Think of them as the architects of your custom home or building. They are not builders of the system or advocates for a vendor. They will work closely with you and your consultant in producing a future-ready system design and bill of materials.
An alternative to the advisory firm is an experienced system integrator and or managed services firm. These firms will typically offer turn-key services that include system design, equipment procurement, installation, commissioning and optimization of the DAS. Typically, the managed services firm will also provide financing, maintenance and in some cases an upgrade guarantee. Both entities will have a verifiable track record of designing and deploying systems that feature performance capabilities linked to current and future needs of their clients.
#4 Prep your building for future expansion
The cliché “it takes wires to be wireless” continues to ring true. Significant cost savings are available to you if you prepare your building for a future-ready DAS. These cost-saving measures include providing dedicated vertical and horizontal penetrations at the time of building construction or cabling infrastructure upgrades that accommodate cable pathways for future systems. Vertical penetrations should also include penetration through the roof for GPS antenna, satellite dish connectivity to an indoor network, and off the air antenna needed to support repeaters for public safety radio or small cellular systems.
Reducing the number of times you need to open a ceiling or hard-to-reach areas will bring down the cost of retrofitting your DAS. Pulling dark fiber and gigabit ethernet cable to areas identified as potential future locations for applications and coverage is considered a best practice.
Set aside space at the venue for DAS head-end and related electronics. Consult with a DAS design engineer to better understand what space and power requirements may be. Fortunately, the space requirement for many DAS systems has fallen. Newer network DAS topologies call for cloud-based network controls and off-site locations of the head-end network gear needed to support the DAS infrastructure.
#5 Set realistic expectations for your “future-proof” DAS installation
Descriptions of DAS systems or equipment that include “future-proof” must be considered in the context of the rapidly changing world of wireless technologies and the unique characteristics of radio frequency. The words future-proof suggests that there will be no obsolescence associated with the capabilities of your new DAS network. That goal or commitment is simply not realistic.
Your best bet is to establish expectations for a “future-ready” distributed antenna systems project that are based on a holistic design approach supporting known technologies and those that are visible on the horizon. These systems will mitigate the cost and disruptive impact of adding future applications and services to the DAS. This design approach will provide the highest probability, but not an explicit or implied guarantee, of accommodating future wireless technologies.
At the present time, DAS systems that deliver fiber, CAT 6a, and gigabit ethernet close to the user experience offer the most compelling upgrade path to a future-ready system. Retaining an experienced, independent equipment agnostic DAS engineering firm or system integrator provides the best opportunity for you to invest in a DAS that meets your current and future requirements.