It’s no secret that wireless services have grown to become our “fourth utility” in the last decade. While this evolution has been revolutionary in terms of communications and connectivity, it has also exposed capacity limitations within in-building enterprise and office environments.
Take out your cell phone and check the signal strength. Walk around your office, inside and outside of the building. Does the signal consistently reach five bars? To achieve true mobility in wireless communications, and to offer that within an enterprise infrastructure, we need to consider the evolution of cellular networks and how it affects us today. And while we explore this transformation, keep this in mind: wireless means a lack of cords, not necessarily seamless mobility.
Cellular Networks of Old: An Outside Broadcast
Cellular networks were and are designed with reliability in mind. Any network that must sustain thousands of simultaneous interconnects at high speeds requires intricate planning and capital considerations.
The outdoor cellular networks and cell sites we often think of — with large towers, antennae, base stations, cabling, switches, etc.— were deployed for outdoor coverage. They are designed to transmit the signal as far possible, distributing maximum signal with the fewest cell sites for phone usage outside. These signals aim downwards essentially, meant to reach you as you walk down the street or drive in a car. The original intents was not for these signals to reach inside buildings to service landline infrastructures.
In addition, accessing consistent cellular coverage has become more of a challenge in dense metro areas where brick and mortar block and modern-day energy-efficient windows deflect them.
Times (and Data Usage) Have Changed
Today, roughly 80 percent of all cellular activity originates indoors, meaning that simply increasing the capacity of outdoor cell towers isn’t enough. When every cell phone downloads, streams, and accesses data-heavy files and sites, weak signal from a faraway outdoor cell tower simply won’t cut it. Even as networks move from 3G to 4G, delivering more capacity to each cell site, connectivity and user capacity can still be difficult from the windowless conference room on the 22nd floor.
When Antennae Aren't the Answer
In recent years, to deliver better in-building cellular service, many enterprise building operators have turned to Distributed Antenna Systems, or DAS. A DAS network uses small antenna nodes, often distributed by floor, that connect with cabling to a common building base station, which in turn connects via backhaul to the carriers.
While DAS networks successfully bring cellular indoors for large building environments, they may not be the ideal solution for some operators. DAS networks are sometimes considered difficult to scale, and are independently connected to the four major cellular providers in the U.S, on which they’re dependent on for base stations and backhauling. Further, installation and deployment can be complicated, and having enough subscribers within a building to justify the costs can also be a concern.
But consider the frustration you feel when a building, be it a stadium or retail environment, doesn’t make cellular connectivity available to you. The negative impact alone from not funding a custom, in-building cellular system is often a strong, and ultimately expensive deterrent.
Say Hello to Small Cell
Providing in-building cellular connectivity can be a true value driver for a variety of enterprise operations. From hotels and airports, to apartment buildings and office skyscrapers, indoor cellular capability is a must-have offering. Enter small cell networks.
Small cell networks offer many benefits for enterprise operators. Essentially, small cells help deliver an entire cell site by way of a series of distributed small access points. In many building environments, rather than using a carrier’s base station for high-capacity cellular deployments, such as with a DAS, operators can deploy multiple enterprise-grade small cells throughout the building to achieve optimal cellular capacity.
In addition, small cell networks provide enterprise operators with enhanced scalability, installation and distribution, and often make deployment simpler. Small cells are discrete and unobtrusive, typically as small as a WiFi access point, and can be mounted above ceiling plenum or in an IT closet. They can also be paired with external antennae if required.
Is Small Cell Right for Your Need?
As technology evolves and the demand for wireless mobility continues to grow, the importance of connectivity exponentially increases. Businesses and organizations of all types are more dependent than ever on mobile devices and most major mobile applications require robust, in-building wireless connectivity solutions. As a result, it’s important to create an environment conducive to how users live and work today.
Further, most companies strive to meet this need while addressing energy use, maintenances costs and long-term adaptability. A small cell network may be underwhelming in footprint, but it has a substantial network impact.