Bank on your in-building cell coverage project to be unique. There will be some similarities to other people's projects from which you can draw insight, but you'll need to accept that variables such as building layout and construction materials will need to be researched specific to your building. Other variables to research for your project will include your existing network coverage, tenant requirements, neighborhood environment, and especially carrier involvement. The following is a checklist to get you started.
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1. Understand Your Problem
By now you know you have an issue with poor coverage in at least some areas of your property. But you need to know why resolution is important. Are you looking to get out in front of an issue or do you want to raise your per-square-foot rental rate? Are your existing tenants (especially those whose leases are about to expire) complaining or demanding better coverage? Does it require immediate resolution or can it be placed into a project schedule? These sound like basic questions but putting them down on paper provides an effective starting framework for the project.
2. Scope Your Carrier Relationship Requirements
You need to identify which carriers have customer market share in your immediate neighborhood because these are the ones with whom you'll need to work. You may decide that you only need to work with one or two to deliver coverage to the majority of your tenants. It's important to determine this aspect before you commit to bringing on a Value-Added Reseller (VAR) or integrator so that you can be sure they'll have a good working knowledge of the carriers involved. The VAR should be well-versed with negotiating with carriers on cost, so focus on coverage for this step, not budget.
3. Choose Your Integrator or Value-Added Reseller
The terms "VAR" and "integrator" used to mean something different. Today, they're used interchangeably in the wireless industry because companies with varying ranges of services call themselves both. Get a sense of the specific areas of expertise any VAR or integrator has when interviewing them as your consultant or partner. These companies' services can range from simple system installation to management of the entire project. Don't focus on what a company calls itself; instead, get a clear understanding of which services it offers and its experience level. Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) certifications and BICSI-rated installers mean a higher caliber of expertise so you'll have potentially fewer hassles. You can use one partner for the complete solution or break up the project and use different partners; it depends on your IT staffers' ability and availability.
4. Determine Who's Paying for It
There are various avenues to explore here. If you fund it, then you purchase all of the equipment and pass the cost along in your leases (perhaps by factoring it into your cost per square foot). It's an expensive way to do it but it gives you more flexibility and allows for an expedited project. However, you can also try to get the carriers to pony up for it. But, unless you show them some compelling return on investment (ROI), they're not likely to sign on. Shared funding is another way to go. This is where you as the owner, your tenants, the carriers, and a third-party-neutral host share the costs. With a Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) buildout, you also have the option of a neutral host who finances and maintains the network, charging costs back to you as a service. None of these options is cheap but, as more buildings install these networks, the processes become easier to design and less expensive, too.
5. Conduct a Building Survey and Radio Frequency Analysis
This is another eye-opening part of the project. You've chosen your integrator or VAR and now it's time to suss out the current coverage quality in your building. The survey should map coverage levels and signal strength throughout your building, across all relevant spectrums. They're also important because they provide information on building materials and layout that determines how well Radio Frequency (RF) signals carry. Finally, while performing this step, if your building houses any medical or lab-centric scientific organizations, then make sure your VAR meets with their IT personnel to ensure that no new equipment will cause them problems.
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6. Scope Your Existing Infrastructure and Management Tools
Most of the equipment required for in-building cell deployments will have to be new if your organization is currently using just standard business networking infrastructure. However, for ongoing maintenance of this new equipment, you'll want to establish some links between what's currently deployed and the new network. To that end, perform both a hardware audit of the existing switch and routing fabric as well as a software audit of your network monitoring tools (such as those like Stackify as well as your asset management or infrastructure management tools (such as those like MMSoft Pulseway. Focus on which tools will work seamlessly with the new equipment and which will need to be upgraded or even replaced.
7. Design Your IBW Network
Network design provides antenna and head end placement for a DAS system or small cell placement that's gleaned from your site survey and analysis. New construction design will need to take into account low-voltage permits and maybe a requirement for a Public Safety network. You or your chosen integrator will compile data based on blueprints, current building materials, number of users or residents, and target carriers. This is a good point to insert design testing as doing so now will make for less headaches after installation. Also, you'll need the design nailed down to have any hope of generating an accurate bill of materials.
8. Installation Time
Your chosen integrator or VAR should be an expert but that doesn't mean you should check out; be sure you closely manage the installation and execution details. Keep in mind that you may have to be flexible in handling unexpected issues that may crop up, especially if they're related to tenant requirements, local IT decisions, or cost issues.
9. Include Testing in Your Project Timeline
Be sure to leave time for quality control testing before, during, and especially after installation. There's nothing worse than turning up a service that doesn't meet expectations or still delivers a poor customer experience, even after all of the effort and expense of an IBW buildout. Be militant about quality testing at every stage, adjust the schedule as necessary to fix issues, and get carrier sign-off before your system goes live. In the end, you'll be happy you did.
10. Don't Forget About Maintenance
Ensure your investment delivers maximum value. To do that, you'll want to line up ongoing monitoring and maintenance of your new network and its performance. This should include both the local service as well as any carriers involved as they'll no doubt also need to verify that the network is performing up to spec and not inducing interference onto their networks. This is usually handled during the commissioning efforts, but issues will still crop up afterward so be sure to address that in the maintenance contract with your VAR.