When potential tenants come knocking, a marquee address, square-footage, floor plans and breathtaking high-rise views aren’t the only things they are looking for. Today business and residential lessors place a high value on cellular voice and broadband mobile data coverage.

Landline telephones are rapidly becoming a thing-of-the-past for homes and for an increasing number of businesses. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal shows that nearly one third of American households have ‘cut the cord’ and no longer have landline telephones. This trend is being echoed across the business landscape as well. An AT&T poll found that among small businesses, 98 percent use wireless technology and 66 percent indicated their businesses could not survive without wireless technology – smart phones have become an essential tool for many businesses today.

Empire State BuildingOvercoming Sky High Obstacles

Clearly, mobile phone user preferences have changed dramatically, and mobile service providers are recognizing the shift. These trends notwithstanding, our strong preference to use mobile and wireless devices all the time, indoors or out, at home or work, is challenging legacy cellular networks.

Unfortunately, most cellular networks installed over the past two decades were architected to provide coverage near the ground, where subscribers walk, drive and commute. Coverage into the upper floors of high-rise buildings was not a design priority. The Empire State Building is a great example. Generally speaking, the historic New York City landmark has had sketchy or no cellular coverage on many upper floors. This begs the question: How do high-rise building owners address this growing gap and ensure that tenants and visitors receive quality, consistent, clear wireless coverage on upper floors?

The first step is to understand the compounding cellular challenges that high-rise buildings face. In addition to the issue of little or no coverage on upper floors, some high-rise buildings have coated glass that reflects radio waves. This effectively blocks service provider signals from penetrating the building interior. Buildings with exteriors clad in steel, stone and concrete often have similar issues.

Building owners can address these issues in multiple ways. One option is to go at it alone. This requires negotiating and offering incentives to encourage each mobile service provider to bring their network “indoors” and to independently engineer, construct and operate their own in-building Distributed Wireless Solution (DAS).

DAS brings wireless service inside the building by distributing the wireless carrier’s signals across small antennas located throughout the building interior. However, financing DAS networks is capital-intensive, with construction often costing millions of dollars. For many building owners, making the business case for this type of capital investment and negotiating with multiple service providers doesn’t hold up. This is in part because the service providers are unlikely to ever recover their infrastructure investment costs.

The Empire State Building chose an alternative option – working with one DAS company to design and install a single system to enable excellent, sky-high mobile coverage for multiple service providers. With this model, each mobile service provider invests a small portion of what it would have cost to build their own indoor network, allowing for more efficient use of capital and infrastructure. In addition, the DAS provider manages the relationships with the mobile service providers, and maintains and operates the network to carrier class standards & service levels.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint are the first service providers to join the new DAS at the Empire State Building, which will begin operation in spring 2014. Other mobile operators expected to sign on in the future.

The iconic Empire State Building’s new state-of-the-art DAS is a great example of how building owners are ensuring that their properties remain attractively competitive. As we rocket through this new century to meet the dramatic changes in how people connect and do business, expect to see even more rise buildings, concert halls, sports arenas, campuses, city centers and large urban parks to address the explosion in mobile use with DAS systems.

1 Sparshott, Jeffery. “About 1 in 3 Households Has No Landline Phone”. Wall Street Journal website. September 5, 2013. http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2013/09/05/about-1-in-3-households-has-no-landline-phone/tab/print/

2 Blumberg, Stephen J. and Luke, Julian V. “Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2012.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Released June 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/wireless201306.pdf>

3 AT&T Inc. “New AT&T Technology Poll Reveals 4G Smartphone Usage Up 70% Among Small Businesses, Tablets Deployed By More Than Two-Thirds of SMB’s.” PR Newswire website. Released March 13, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. <http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-att-technology-poll-reveals-4g-smartphone-usage-up-70-among-small-businesses-tablets-deployed-by-more-than-two-thirds-of-smbs-197787381.html>

Tim W. Ayers

Tim W. Ayers is the Vice President Global Services for ExteNet Systems, Inc., a leader in distributed networks for the wireless industry, based in the Chicago, IL area.