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By Chad Townes
From the October 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Facility managers (fms) in convention centers and other large facilities are quickly adapting to a new reality. In today’s hyperconnected environment, networking opportunities are only as good as the communications networks supporting them. The simple truth: People depend on having reliable mobile Internet connections for their smartphones, tablets, and other digital gadgets just about everywhere. While conventions are opportunities for valuable face-to-face interaction, those attending are also posting to social channels about a speaker’s insights, keeping up with projects back at the office, or surfing the web for the best location to meet a new contact for dinner.
While convention centers and other large event venues offer distinct business and leisure environments, this means thousands of people in a centralized area are trying to connect online at once. Fms know that delivering excellent mobile Internet connectivity within a large (often concrete) building is not a simple task. And since many facilities are fully or partially underground, this tends to block signals from nearby cell towers, resulting in spotty cell service within the venue. This creates a substantial challenge for facility owners trying to compete in an increasingly mobile environment.
To cover a large facility with a strong mobile network fully, venues need technology beyond what is provided by traditional cell towers. Unfortunately, there is not one cookie cutter solution since no two buildings have the same layout, coverage needs, geography, or regional wireless spectrum availability. So how do fms provide a high level of mobile connectivity within the confines of a convention center or other large building?
One solution facility professionals are having success with is a network technology called a distributed antenna system (DAS). A DAS is a customized network of small antennas designed to enhance network capacity and wireless service within a geographic area or large building where crowd density would normally overload the existing wireless network.
How It Works
The DAS works by splitting up a facility into zones, ranging from a dozen to multiple dozens, depending on the size and density of the venue. The number of zones in a venue varies based on a wide range of factors, including the architecture of the building, expected network volume, and traffic flow. For example, there may be more zones needed in areas such as the convention center show floor or near the entrance where people tend to congregate. Each “zone” then gets its own cell antenna, in order to amplify coverage within the venue.
Once within the range of a DAS, the customers of mobile carriers joined to this system are automatically connected to the network. The DAS helps ensure that both attendees and organizers are able to stay connected throughout an event by bolstering the wireless signal.
Additionally, DAS providers can install neutral host networks that are built so other mobile carriers can join the system. This means the wireless users of mobile carriers joining the system also access the benefits of the enhanced mobile network.
Capacity and Scope: Each DAS is customized to meet the specific needs and requirements of a building. Fms can work with their service provider’s engineers to perform testing to estimate how much wireless capacity the system would actually need to handle in their venue. If there are specific areas within a building, such as lobbies or meeting rooms, that experience high foot traffic and require concentrated coverage, the DAS needs to be built to accommodate the increased wireless demand of those spaces.
Additional testing for the scope of coverage would also be performed to evaluate how far reaching the DAS would extend. For example, some fms want the additional coverage to extend beyond the venue walls into parking garages, basements, and surrounding streets—all of which require a stronger network.
To account for increases in mobile data traffic, it’s important to build a DAS that can handle mobile traffic projections for the next several years.
Installation Process and Cost: Depending on the size and scope of the DAS, installation times can vary based on multiple factors. An installation requires strategic placement of antennas within the facility, Ethernet circuits, miles of cables built within the venue walls, and a team of network engineers contributing hundreds of hours throughout this process. Many existing facilities undergo connectivity improvements, and there are ways to mitigate the disruption that construction may cause, such as working during the night or at off-peak times.
A DAS installation is a major investment that facilities make in order to improve the experience of occupants as it relates to wireless coverage. Because the DAS is a highly customized solution, the cost of each installation is determined by each venue’s specific needs and capacity requirements.
Once the DAS installation process is complete, fms can expect targeted wireless coverage throughout the entire venue that eliminates dead spots and weak service zones. Network managers will continue to optimize the DAS network on a regular basis to ensure the system is performing at optimal levels, and upgrades and expansions are implemented as appropriate.
To help keep their organizations competitive, fms working in convention centers and similar venues must deliver what event organizers and attendees want. And today, that means not just state-of-the-art facilities but also seamless mobile connectivity.
Townes is vice president of AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group (ASG), overseeing all of the company’s DAS installations. He is responsible for the end to end deployment of AT&T wireless infrastructure delivered via DAS. ASG is responsible for extending the capabilities of AT&T’s cellular network within large public venues. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.