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How to Improve Mobile Coverage on Campus

Spurred by the BYOD trend, campuses are dealing with the need for enhanced mobile coverage--from basement classrooms to new construction. Three schools share their experiences establishing DAS networks.

It's an issue facing every IT administrator: how to anticipate and deal with the increasing demand for problem-free wireless connection on campus--both inside and outdoors. Whether in a dorm, a basement classroom, or a conference center, connectivity is critical. Students and faculty expect it; safety procedures necessitate it; and the emphasis on greater business efficiency makes it imperative.

"We have moved from the wireless network being a network of convenience to its being the critical primary network," said David Galassi, Yale University's  (CT) director of ITS Network Services. "This has caused us to move from the hot-spot model to coverage focus, and now to capacity and resiliency. This, in turn, is being driven by a fundamental change in new devices that are wireless only--an expectation of mobility and ubiquitous 'always-on' connectivity."

According to Galassi, a number of drivers lie behind the need for enhanced mobile coverage, including the fact that "students have no interest in using wired telephones in their rooms or suites." Plus, mobile phones have become a great tool to enhance campus safety. "Our university's emergency-alert system delivers important information via texts and calls to mobile phones," he explained. Mobile phones have also helped enhance specialist services. At the Yale School of Medicine, for example, clinicians look to enhanced mobile coverage to improve efficiency in communicating with patients, minimizing the need to return calls or to carry devices such as pagers.

Keys to Improved Connectivity
Strategies for optimizing connectivity will vary depending on whether the coverage is indoors or outdoors. "In many old buildings, as soon as you go inside you have poor wireless coverage," explained Jim Parker, senior manager in AT&T's Antenna Solutions Group. But even the most cutting-edge new construction can pose problems, he noted. For example, "green" building construction can obstruct coverage: Windows often have a coating that blocks wireless signals, and the building materials themselves may limit carrier signals. "For these problems," said Parker, "we need all the tools in our toolbox--including bringing the cell service indoors instead of relying on cell towers a half-mile away."

In areas where traditional connectivity is difficult to implement or sustain, many schools turn to distributed antenna systems. (For a further discussion about the pros and cons of DAS networks, see "Connecting the Dots in DAS.") DAS networks can be ideal for outdoor coverage, as well as in stadiums and new buildings--particularly those with green certification. DAS networks have an added advantage over WiFi when it comes to emergencies: With DAS, first-responders can pinpoint a callers's location, plus it's more likely that a caller will get through--during emergencies, WiFi bandwidth can become clogged.

"A campus equipped with DAS systems covering all major carriers will be attractive to students," said Heneith Samuel, director of telecommunications at Brooklyn College (NY). "Today's students are wired exclusively for contemporary technology, and they expect 100 percent availability of service for their 'gadgets.' Students will not hesitate to inform others that they cannot use their smartphones in certain areas of the campus or with certain carriers. There is a direct correlation with enrollment levels which, in turn, impact revenue."

It's a viewpoint shared by Mark Zuber, a telecommunications specialist at Kirkwood Community College(IA). "Having a highly effective, carrier-approved, centrally managed system is a great asset," he noted. Kirkwood recently built a 71-room hotel/conference center that serves as a lab and training environment for students in the school's hospitality programs. "We wanted our guests to have a high-level, quality experience, and we couldn't short them on access to their wireless service providers. As a result, we made sure all of the carriers are available on our DAS."

Financing and Implementation
Funding a DAS system can be complex, but schools generally have three options: To pay for it themselves; to have a mobile carrier such as Sprint or Verizon foot the bill; or to rely on a neutral host that will recruit a range of carriers. How schools proceed will depend on a variety of factors, ranging from how quickly they want to implement the service to how important it is to give their constituents a choice of wireless carriers.

To pay for its DAS setup, Brooklyn College is using a combination of regular operating funds and funds allocated by students from their technology fees. The school plans to remediate all campus building over the course of three to four years. For schools considering a similar approach, Samuel advised them to "prepare a good business plan, along with clear and defined justification. Don't forget actual examples of low-signal levels in affected areas."

He also stressed that schools should take the time to understand the DAS industry. In fact, he suggested "seeking sound technical advice and expertise from established and credible companies, such as TE Connectivity's wireless business unit."            

As with any IT intitiative, though, it's also vital to obtain buy-in among campus constituents. "Be persistent in convincing key stakeholders, particularly those with limited technical knowledge," Samuels counseled. "If necessary, start with one area or building at a time. The dramatic enhancement in coverage and service will be noticed and presents a springboard to justify inclusion of other areas in subsequent requests."

To pay for its mobile-optimization initiatives, Kirkwood rolled the expenses into the construction budget for the new hotel/conference center facility. The school intends to expand the system as budgets allow, but Zuber stressed how key the initial building project was in getting the DAS component off the ground.

"There needs to be a project impetus for that initial core system," Zuber noted. "The initial core of the system, with donor antenna and negotiation with the carriers, is the most time consuming and expensive."  

For its part, Yale decided to implement its DAS network in two phases. The first phase consisted of 10 partial buildings, funded by Campus Security. After this was completed, Galassi noted, "we were approached by a carrier network group interested in funding and installing a neutral-host system across the entire campus." The group surveyed 150 buildings (out of 439), bringing 79 buildings on air before the end of 2012. Looking ahead, Galassi indicated that "we hope to secure additional carrier funding."

After his experiences, Galassi offered the following advice for schools pursuing DAS solutions:

  • Be clear about your objectives for the enhanced coverage. This can drive your funding choice.
  • Communicate and align your goals with all of the critical departments across campus, including Facilities, IT, Office of General Counsel, University Property Management, Athletics, etc.
  • Determine if you have timing requirements for the systems. The funding options (self, carrier, or operator) will generate different results. If you need or want to move quickly, self-funding is really the only option. Carrier or operator funding will add one to two years of contract negotiations and business-case development.
  • Do your homework. Know what drives the different funding decision-makers. Each of the different categories of funds has a different driver.
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