October 2013

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In-Building Cellular Enhancement

A Smart Building Paradox

Bob ButchkoBob Butchko
 National Business Development
RF Connect LLC

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Although building automation systems began to become popular 50 years ago, there are still a good number of articles being written today that define or explain the smart building concept. This is mostly due to the smart building evolving around the introduction of new technologies and new methods. Changing tenant needs and preferences also modify the dynamic, as does the many socio-economic forces affecting the commercial developer.

Interestingly, these articles also try to dispel the notion that smart buildings and green buildings are the same thing. Technically that may be correct. However the smart building and green building movements have been in lock-step for years. Their goals are similar, some requirements overlap and to most people, they simply go hand-in-hand technically correct or not.

As a point of reference for what will follow, green building materials keep unwanted cold and hot out, while keeping wanted cooling and heating in. The smart building’s hi-tech systems sense, measure, control and efficiently manage the total in-building environment to ensure optimal energy usage and a positive occupant experience. Hence the smart/green building attributes work together to conserve energy and save money.  Terrific, the environment wins, the happy tenant might pay a little less and the building owner takes more money to the bank. A win-win all the way around, or is it?

I’ll bet my pay check that if I told a smart building professional that his or her smart/green building was actually making the occupants of the building frustrated, less productive and most importantly use more energy, he or she would say I was crazy or worse. Well in most cases there is a reasonable probability that my assertion, which seems self-contradictory or absurd, is essentially true; hence “A Smart Building Paradox”.

My concern is that there is an energy saving smart building attribute, which is also a requirement for tenant acquisition, retention and to some extent safety that is not on the smart building radar. My contention is that without in-building wireless communication enhancement systems being able to take their rightful place among HVAC and electrical systems, the smart building is missing a key attribute. For the ability to wirelessly connect with the outside world from within a modern building, both voice and data, is paramount to every occupant.   

What is little known, but should be accounted for, is that the more the green building materials keep unwanted cold and hot out, while keeping wanted cooling and heating in, the more they also keep out (attenuate) RF Energy as illustrated below. This happens despite the high IQ of the smart building computer run management systems.

Low E Glass

As you can clearly see using green low E glass blocks RF Energy (cellular signals) from entering the structure. Without adding in-building RF enhancement to the list of smart building system components that negative affect cannot be reversed. 

Smart phones burn lots of energy looking for the strongest signal. Some would argue that the amount of energy needed for that search is miniscule. Well, that may have been true in the past, but in the 6 years since the advent of the iPhone, the number of smart phones on the planet has grown from literally zero to more than 2 billion, with 89 million apps having been downloaded. Keep in mind these numbers apply only to smartphones not all cell phones which would multiple the number many times. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before smart wireless devices will out-number the total world population; power consumption then turns from miniscule to mighty.

The attenuation of the cell signal, at least in the tenant’s mind, is more important than all the smart/green building attributes combined because it has direct and negative effects on their daily lives. Keeping out RF energy degrades, or worst yet, negates the use of everyone’s dearly beloved SMART PHONE, which equates to a modern day tragedy! 

Remember, 80% of all wireless calls and Internet connections are made from inside buildings and that includes 911 calls. These are popular surface level statistics. If you look just below the surface you will find real life situations that we all face every day.  For example, even with Wi-Fi, but without a good cellular signal, the school nurse can’t reach you. You’ll never know that the car pool driver got sick and can’t pick up the kids or that your spouse had an accident and needs your help. Ironically the mass notification system that your company spent so much money on is ineffective. Conversely, you can’t reach the outside world either. Use a land line you say, many times there are no land lines, and usually the only number people have is your cell number because you always have it on your person.

If the only signal source is the outdoor macro system, (re: the system that is being mostly or partially blocked), the cell phone will exhaust itself trying to acquire and keep a signal. Consequently, it will need to be recharged much more quickly and more often. In turn, the outdoor macro site must intensify its signal output to try to supply signal to those phones; both scenarios needlessly waste energy.

Clearly there is significant opportunity to save energy both indoors and out. 

So what’s the answer?

Reliable Controls The answer is to literally put the cell tower in the building by installing some form of cellular and public safety ‘signal enhancement’ via a distributed antenna system (DAS) and or small cells. Some say, “I have Wi-Fi, I don’t need cell coverage”. Well guess what, a Wi-Fi system is also a distributed antenna system (DAS) and it is not on the smart/green building leaderboard either. More importantly, 4G LTE combined with a new technology, Evolved Packet Core (EPC), ends 20 years of VoIP. All voice, data and ‘video’ communications are combined and built on 4G LTE, a cellular signal, and IP protocol. The power of LTE is significant and not close to being fully exploited. So having a strong, reliable and robust cellular signal in the building becomes an even more critical smart building component.   

Unfortunately, I’ve observed that the smart/green building contingent pays only lip service to the whole business of in-building cellular and public safety enhancement. It is pretty difficult to declare a building as ‘smart and green’ if the tenants are seeing red. The tenants are frustrated, less productive, less safe, and in one regard use more energy despite the implementation of these sophisticated smart building systems.

Our culture is dependent on cellular devices for voice and data, the negative impact from the lack of in-building service within smart/green buildings is obvious. Less obvious is the potential impact to public safety. As previously mentioned, eighty percent of all E911 calls are made through a cell phone. The RF issues faced by the commercial carriers within green buildings are also faced by the wireless communication systems used in fire and rescue. The NFPA and IFC have published extensive guidelines for the design, installation and monitoring of in-building public safety radio amplification systems. These guidelines have been put in place so that fire, police and EMS personnel will be able to communicate via their land mobile radios when in any part of the building. Installation of these systems helps eliminate the disastrous communication failures experience on nine eleven and saves lives. By any measure, cellular and public safety distributed antenna systems should be an integral part of the ‘smart building’ technology mix.

It is paradoxical that while so much emphasis is placed on saving energy, one energy saving smart/green building attribute, which is also critical to tenant satisfaction and to a certain extent safety, is but a mere place holder. The smart building community needs to get smarter. In-building RF enhancement should take center stage in the smart building world.   

Post Script: Contrary to some claims Wi-Fi is not a cure all. Wi-Fi technology was an early entry into the wireless world. The hardware can be relatively inexpensive, it is not overly complicated to install, and there are thousands of consumer dealers to choose from. It is mostly because of these consumer like qualities that Wi-Fi is relatively common place.

On the down side, Wi-Fi is only available when hotspots provide consumer access, and even then, logging-on can be annoying, troublesome and cost money or all three. Most importantly, the technology only supports data, not voice.

Since Wi-Fi is completely un-regulated it has no service guarantees. If it breaks whom do you call? Furthermore, it is not secure and it has spotty VoIP capabilities at best (VoIP is unreliable for most applications)

Wi-Fi does serve well today as a backhaul to off-load the cellular network, but that will be of less importance as newer cellular technologies come onboard.  On to itself Wi-Fi is not a replacement for cellular coverage/capacity.  

As 4G/LTE become more entrenched Wi-Fi will take a real back seat. 4G/LTE is a true wireless data network. It was specifically designed to provide abundant capacity to those hundreds of millions of smart phones.  It will be faster than Wi-Fi, secure, completely reliable with guaranteed levels of service. The best news is that you don’t have to live your whole life in a Wi-Fi hot-spot, if you have a cellular signal in-side the building.

One final note, LTE combined with Evolved Packet Core (EPC) signals the end of 20 years of VoIP. All voice, data and ‘video’ communications are built on LTE IP protocol and you don’t get this through Wi-Fi as we know it today.

About the Author

Bob Butchko is a veteran high technology executive. He has held business development positions in the high-tech centers of Silicon Valley, Seattle, Denver and Washington, DC. Mr. Butchko has experience in a variety of technologies and markets in both the commercial and government sectors.  He has also provided executive level consulting services to such firms as Deloitte and Unisys Public Sector.

For the past decade Mr. Butchko has been involved with the design, installation, and certification of in-building, tunnel, and ship board wireless communication systems for public-safety and commercial cellular coverage. Today Mr. Butchko is recognized as an expert in the “In-Building Wireless Communications” market. 

He recently joined RF Connect LLC, a national in-building wireless systems integration company. He will use his Distributed Antenna Systems’ experience and knowledge to help RFC expand brand awareness, create new products and services, and enter new markets. 

Bob is a graduate of LaSalle University and served as a Naval Officer and Aviator. He is also an author, public speaker and advocate for the creation and enforcement of In-Building Public Safety Radio regulations.


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