All businesses need strong, reliable in-building connectivity. As we showed in a recent study of the communications tools used for connecting with customers, vendors, partners and colleagues, employees increasingly are using their cell phones to communicate while at work rather than traditional business phones.
In addition, their smartphones are for much more than making calls; they’re being used to access the internet, download apps and data from the cloud, connect with others via video calls and for a wide range of other tasks.
Throw in the growing use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, emerging bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs and the fact that younger, always-connected, tech-savvy people are making up an increasing percentage of the workforce, and the need for reliable indoor cellular signals becomes that much clearer.
When thinking of their options, business executives and building owners will file through the same list that comprises everything from small cells and voice-over-WiFi to repeaters and distributed antenna systems (DAS). They all come with differing costs and advantages, though forward-thinking businesses also take into account other aspects beyond the upfront hardware expenses, from installation to preparing the business for new technologies coming in the future. In those respects, DAS oftentimes make the most sense for companies and building owners. DAS solutions use amplifiers and antennas that are distributed throughout a building and linked via a cable infrastructure to a centralized distribution hub. The hub connects to the radio-frequency source that is used by the mobile devices, and the carrier’s signal is distributed to all parts of a building through the DAS. You could almost think of it as a sprinkler system for cellular radio signals. It not only offers a strong and reliable signal throughout the building, but also can eliminate interference from outside signal sources.
An all-fiber DAS costs less to install and manage
Once the decision on DAS is made, it sets in motion a whole new set of questions that need to be answered, from how much to spend to which vendor to go with. A key to many of these questions is the cabling needed for the DAS. In particular, the use of fiber.
Almost every DAS solution uses fiber cabling to some extent, though most also use coaxial cables or Cat-5/6 somewhere along the line. (And this is a heavier version of coaxial cable, not the kind of cabling used in your home to hook a television up to a signal source.) Businesses need to look for offerings which feature a cable infrastructure that is all fiber end-to-end.
Cost and installation: As mentioned, most DAS solutions use a combination of fiber and coaxial cabling in a hybrid fashion. Many DAS providers may use fiber as the foundation of the solution, but rely on coaxial cabling from that backbone out to the antennas. That hybrid approach can mean higher costs. Coaxial cable is much heavier and thicker than fiber, has a limited bend radius, and is more difficult to install, which means installation often takes longer and routing requires longer runs to reach the end-point antennas. It also can require other hardware that might not be in the initial estimates, and connectorizing coaxial cable is difficult and time consuming. By contrast, other offerings use thinner, less expensive fiber all the way to the antennas, have fewer components and often can leverage the fiber network already pervasive in modern office buildings.
The reason that fiber cabling is so pervasive is that it’s a broadband medium and not subject to much signal loss, which means fiber can be run long distances without it impacting performance. Compare that to coaxial cabling, which has some decent bandwidth capabilities, but tends to lose signal strength when run-lengths get too long. So from a performance perspective, coax simply won't perform the way that fiber will. And this issue with loss is magnified at higher frequencies, so using coax to support frequencies such as 3.5GHz or 5GHz is more than a little problematic in terms of performance.
Impact on employees: The burden of installing hybrid DAS solutions that include coaxial cabling goes beyond the initial upfront costs associated with equipment and manpower. To get the coaxial cables installed means that those people doing the work will need time and space to get it done. They’ll be crawling around the ceiling to lay the cabling to reach the antennas. For company employees, that means trying to work around the disruption caused by the installation and possibly having to move while the installation is being done. That can mean that in addition to the already higher costs of installing the coaxial cable, companies risk lost employee productivity while the work is being done. Fiber is easier and faster to install, and in many buildings, a fiber network is already in place and ready to be used by the all-fiber DAS solution.
The trend is business will continue to be mobile. According to Cisco, average smartphone use jumped 38 percent in 2016 over the previous year, and smartphones accounted for 81 percent of total mobile traffic globally. By 2021, smartphones will be more than 50 percent of global devices and connections. Throw in social media and other communications tools like chat and text, the IoT and M2M traffic, and the direction is clear. Businesses need reliable in-building cellular connectivity that not only is affordable, but also is prepared to support multiple carriers, more frequencies and new technologies that are on the horizon. A solution featuring the use of fiber end-to-end can address those needs.
There are three things you should consider when investigating an in-building wireless solution: cost of hardware, cost of installation, cost to meet future needs. Want to learn more? Download our TCO ebook.