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8 Smart Calls for Finding Cell Success on Campus

The days of hefty lease payments from cellular operators is over. You're now in charge of making sure you deliver the cell service your school wants and needs. But where do you start your plan?

cell towers

Got lousy cell service on campus? Whether the problem is ubiquitous or just in local pockets — the labs in the science building basement or the chancellor's home behind the hill — there's plenty you can do beyond just complaining.

Rod Perry, head of Cellular Savvy, runs a consultancy to help colleges and universities plan their cellular strategy. He's also written a book by the same name, Cellular Savvy, and in it he offers ample advice on how to find cell success on campus.

Perry said that rarely is technology the problem. "It's almost always the business model or the organizational approach where these things fail."

In spite of the fact that a lot of universities have invested heavily in WiFi and see WiFi as being the "wireless" solution, there are a number of reasons why campuses need solid cellular too, Perry pointed out:

  • Public safety:"The ability to just take your handset, dial 9-1-1 and get assistance is a critical application."
  • Redundancy:Schools have ample supplies of wired and wireless phones. But when those aren't functional, cellular "gives you a second way to get to people."
  • Notification.When an emergency occurs, text messaging is a common way to reach people where they are.

Here, Perry shares cellular insights to help your planning.

Focus on the Two Largest Carriers

When you're debating about what operators matter to your cellular planning, Perry listed two: AT&T and Verizon. "They probably have something around 70 to 75 percent of the market share in most American cities. If they have robust coverage on a campus, they're going to meet the needs of the majority of subscribers."

That doesn't mean that Sprint and T-Mobile are absent, he said. "They're just more likely to come in from across the street, or if they're on a campus, they're just going to have a macro site on a building somewhere. From a capacity standpoint, that meets their needs. They're spending in line with their market share."

Put a Single Person in Charge of Cellular

For consistency's sake, advised Perry, it's best to have a cellular czar on campus. Seventy percent of the time, that will probably be somebody in the IT organization. But because real estate and facilities people have dealt historically with operators on cell tower deals, sometimes it'll be somebody in that division who oversees cellular activities.

However, he added, "it's truly a team effort because of all the varied needs of these projects." IT can handle the self-funded work; real estate people should weigh in on operator-funded aspects; and legal staff should be involved in third-party deals, in which non-operator companies have bought up cell tower sites and charge the operators to use them.

The Days of Lease Payments Are Almost Over

In the early days, cellular operators may have paid institutions to place their antennas and other equipment on the campus in the hopes of collecting money on every minute of service delivered. In these days of fixed plans, that's no longer the case. Yes, the largest universities may still be attractive to a cell operator as a site for a big outdoor installation and they may still offer a lease payment, said Perry. "But when you get into in-building systems or a campus antenna system, the cost of those is so high just from a deployment perspective, there's not a lot of money left over to pay an access lease."

Increasingly, the operators are reticent to sign long term deals in which they pay any type of on-going lease.

That philosophy was confirmed recently by Alan Tantillo, national director for development and siting policy at T-Mobile US, who was quoted as saying during a tradeshow panel, "We need to see venues decide to put systems in themselves — just like power, light and water."

Where You're Going to Find the Worst Service

The bigger the building, the more dense the construction materials, and the harder it will be for cellphones to penetrate to outside towers or antennas — especially if the user is in the middle of the building or in the basement. "That's probably going to be a good spot to add some type of infrastructure inside that building to bring the signal inside," Perry noted.

Plus, the code that has become the standard to aspire to for new building construction on campus has also led to bad cell service inside those buildings. "Every time I talk to somebody from a school, the first problem they bring to my attention is some newly constructed student center that they're so proud of because it's engineered to LEED standards, but nobody can make a call inside those buildings. It's a very pressing problem," he said. According to Perry, LEED standards use glass coated in such a way that it reflects infrared light to keep the sun's energy out of these buildings in order to keep them cooler. "Unfortunately," he added, "it's quite effective in blocking cellular signals as well."

Perry recommended adding cellular into your new build schedule so it can be tackled as part of construction planning and not as a problem that needs to be dealt with later.

Be Creative With Campus Coverage

Cellular service now typically falls into three different buckets, Perry explained.

One bucket is the place where so many people from on campus and off campus congregate — a sports arena, student center or a theater — "the operators will still get out their checkbooks and pay."

Another bucket is at the low end, the "little nooks and crannies and special situations" — the president's home, "where they need better cell coverage because they have parties and entertain," or the basement labs where people are working late. These are places the operators will never fix, let alone pay to deliver service in. To address those gaps, schools can buy small coverage-based solutions.

These include signal boosters that pick up the signal outside the building and amplify it and bring it into the building for $1,000 to $1,500; they support all carriers. Another solution is a small basestation, called a femtocell, that takes the voice traffic, converts it to IP, sends it over the Ethernet network and reconverts it to voice when it gets back to the carrier's network. Those can support four to six users and cost between $150 and $250, said Perry; but you'll need one for each operator you want to support.

The third bucket is a hybrid approach for "pragmatic" schools that can work with the operators in collaborative opportunities. "Maybe the school provides the funding or the fiber, but the operators come in and supply the radios and do the rest."

Get Real With Your Expectations

According to Perry, the single biggest problem with getting great cell service is the institutions that have an "over-inflated view" of themselves. These are the schools that are centuries old, want coverage everywhere, but can't abide by installation of antennas or any other gear that might impair the aesthetic quality of their campuses. Or they demand so much of the operators that the negotiations simply break down.

But not everybody is like that. Perry referenced a well-known institution in the Midwest that takes a much more realistic approach. This university meets once a year in a face-to-face meeting with each operator. "They talk about what they've accomplished, what's still on the to-do list, go through all of the new buildings they're constructing and what their expectations are, and then they have quarterly conference calls to follow up." Despite being "very storied and exclusive," this school has never said no to any antenna location, as long as some type of mitigation is used. For example, in two of the most famous locations on the campus, the antennas are painted to blend into the specific site. "You don't see them unless you know what you're looking for," he noted.

Cellular and WiFi Are Converging

Over the next five years, Perry predicted, the relationship between wireless networking and cellular technology is going to "change dramatically." Currently, he said, "The operators are very happy when you connect [your smartphone] to the campus WiFi, use that for YouTube and Facebook and all of your apps. Then if you have to make a call, you use their network."

Now, there's more blending going on. And T-Mobile and Sprint are leading the way by offering "WiFi calling." As Perry explained, "If you have a T-Mobile handset today and you go on a college campus and get on the WiFi, you can do everything. You can make a phone call, text, get your data — as if the T-Mobile cellular network did not exist." The advantage is user satisfaction, "because campuses usually have very good WiFi."

Beyond that, however, cellular networks will have the ability to hand off to or bond with WiFi. "If you're on a cellular network and you want a big download, the cellular network can actually send packets over the WiFi network and your handset can receive them from both the cellular and the WiFi."

Eventually, he added, in-building cellular will look like WiFi. "It's becoming virtualized. The endpoints are going to be kind of stupid and inexpensive. You'll plug them into your data network and they'll radiate cellular signals." Within five years, he forecasted, the traditional distributed antenna system or DAS may go away.

Have a Plan

Until mix and match is really here, campuses have a choice. They can continue complaining or they can become proactive and develop a plan of action.

"One of the problems I see historically with higher ed is that the school makes a decision on a specific business model, and then it pursues that to the exclusion of all other models," said Perry. "But there's no one model that works best. The campus is not monolithic. The operators look at the campus very differently. They look at the stadium differently from the basement of the science building. From a practical perspective, schools need to examine their needs and they need to understand the cellular space well enough to say, 'Oh, our stadium is a good match for a third party. Our new library is something we probably need to collaborate with the operators on for a multi-carrier system. And then we've got these seven little problem spots where we're just going to have to roll up our sleeves and fix ourselves.'"

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