DAS – The 4th Utility
by Will Washburn
At one time the buggy whip was a crucial element in the transportation field. Although a fringe player in the horse drawn cart era, its demise in the automobile era has been a defined case study in evolution and extinction of technology. A once thriving industry in Westfield Mass., coined as “The Whip City”, where more than 40 businesses made whips and carriage parts, is a defining story in emerging technologies and its impact on industry.
To discount such an evolution in communication technology, would be tantamount to ignoring the impact of the automobile era on the buggy whip. Today, we are experiencing technology evolution that is trending at a monumental pace. The last mile technology benefactor is certainly wireless, and will be last mile standard in the future.
Think about the gravity of our current cellular paradigm. Just 20 years ago, all our communications needs were transported by an aging infrastructure of copper wires know as POTS lines. The acronym stands for Plain Old Telephone Service. POTS lines accounted for all our voice traffic and in many cases data as well with the use of T1 and DS1. The landline telephone was once the back bone of telecommunications for over 100 years. In the last 2 centuries, a pivotal shift to ubiquitous wireless has redefined how we communicate. The POTS system in the U.S. is crumbling. Telephone lines are more vulnerable than ever while operators have made maintenance a low priority. Basically, there is reduced urgency to tend to POTS infrastructure, now that many people have moved onto wireless. Sound familiar?
With wireless and LTE being the benefactor for connectivity and backhaul, net capacity and usage will continue to climb at record rates. Considering that 80 % of all traffic originates or terminates in a building, and only 2% of structures have a system in place to propagate coverage, we have a choke point in our migration. Enterprise property owners have been pointing the finger for years at the cellular carriers, stating that it is their problem. And rightfully so, because it is the cellular companies core business, not the property owner. But the reality is, to accommodate the user demand, and the unwillingness to support enterprise, last mile propagation responsibility is shifting to the enterprise. It is the “next utility” and the carriers have expressed their reluctance to fund it. Add to this already existing chasm, additional challenges are presented by today’s energy-efficient buildings which are constructed from materials that interfere with outdoor wireless signals. Enterprise has become the torch bearer in this evolution.
According to a report published by Ericsson; “Connecting the dots: Small cells shape up for high performance indoor radio”, the global consumption of mobile traffic is increasing at a rate of 45% annually.
“In 2012, the global consumption of mobile data traffic in a month amounted to 1.1 exabytes. This figure is set to rise to 20 exabytes by 2019, corresponding to a CAGR of 45 percent. Today, this traffic is split 70/30 with the larger proportion consumed indoors; a level that is not expected to decrease. Adapting networks to support such a rapid rise in traffic demand will require massive deployments of targeted indoor small cell solutions, complemented by denser outdoor deployments”
This is a monumental shift that cannot be ignored. In-building DAS and small cell deployments are imperative for the evolution of our networks to accommodate connectivity and capacity demand.
The good news is that technology of DAS is migrating at the same pace. Older legacy systems, while still relevant, are being replaced by more cost efficient multi-play systems. By combining multiple technologies into one system and lowering the economics of deployment, the enterprise can mitigate the installation and operation of DAS. In new construction, advanced technologies can combine budgets for cellular propagation, WIFI, CCTV, and public safety, all in one system.
Although technology advancement is paramount, the overlooked element in enhancing in-building coverage, is the site acquisition process with the carriers. Simply repeating a signal of a macro site is not usually a viable solution. Carriers carefully plan capacity, and offloading traffic to a macro site can affect their planning. An in-building solution must be coordinated with the carriers, legally, as it is their network, and to plan for demand and capacity requirements. Considering this, backhaul is a poignant discussion. Although the carriers are not going to subsidize the cost of in-building DAS in most cases, if there is critical mass, they may budget for bringing signal to a neutral host, enterprise funded DAS. Either by way of broadband or fiber backhaul, there is still significant cost in bringing in the signal. There are cost for “in market” or “out of market” fiber circuit leases for back haul, and head end equipment, such as RRU’s, base stations, power and battery backup. These are relevant costs and must be justified by the carrier and their budget to bring signal on even a BTS only lease. This is not a “build it and they will come” scenario. The site acquisition element must be addressed up front in the design and engineering phase.
In summary, owner funded neutral host DAS, is a reality that property owners now must embrace. Like any other utility, it is now the property owners burden. Although most of the carriers have openly stated that they will not fund enterprise DAS, there is a middle ground where they have a vested interest in bringing signal to properties with a neutral host DAS to improve coverage, capacity and fit in to the macro cluster. As such, it is imperative to pay attention to the site acquisition process, early in the feasibility phase of any new roll out, to avoid false starts. And from my view, it our responsibility as manufacturers and integrators to bring leading edge, cost effective systems to market, to help owners shoulder the burden.
Will Washburn, is the COO of Combined Operations for Digitechx Inc. a global provider of wireless services to the carrier and enterprise markets.