High-quality in-building connectivity is key to attracting employees back to offices 

By Perry Welch, Chief Sales Officer, Airwavz 

Note: This blog was produced under WIA’s In-Building Forum, which focuses on connectivity in buildings and across campuses.

Four years after COVID-19 sent a large chunk of the workforce home to work remotely, attracting employees back to physical offices has become a priority, and high-quality connectivity inside buildings will be key to the success of that mission. 

The macro cellular networks that have provided ubiquitous coverage for three decades no longer provide adequate capacity and coverage inside buildings for a variety of reasons. Certain building materials — including steel, concrete and glass — make it difficult for outdoor mobile signals to penetrate buildings. That challenge is compounded by higher frequencies now being used in cellular networks that are inherently less able to penetrate buildings. 

In addition, macro cellular networks are unable to provide the capacity needed to service the large number of people who live and work in big buildings, not to mention machines that require connectivity. As a result, dedicated, in-building networks are needed to meet coverage and capacity requirements inside buildings.  

Return to Work 

The pace of return to work has varied from industry-to-industry and market-to-market. The West Coast has been a bit slower to return than other parts of the country, and the tech and banking sectors are struggling a little more than other industries to get employees back into offices. But every day that passes, occupancy levels are going up. 

Building owners and employers recognize that they need to make the office environment attractive for employees to be willing to return. That includes adding amenities like daycare services, gym facilities, dry cleaners, and other conveniences to buildings. It also includes providing high-quality, indoor wireless coverage. In fact, many tenants are demanding an improved in-building connected experience for hybrid and in-office employees as part of lease renewals. As a result, Class A commercial real estate owners are proactively funding in-building wireless networks. 

Although occupants who are returning are taking up less space, there are more devices to connect to in-building networks, and the amount of coverage needed inside buildings has increased. While all of this compounds the problem of designing in-building networks, the process isn’t necessarily more complex. Our biggest challenge remains overcoming the macro noise that comes into a building and designing a network robust enough to push all of that noise out so the wireless experience inside is great. 

CRE Trends 

A major trend within commercial real estate today is in distressed properties. Some building owners squeezed by challenging financial markets are selling their properties for pennies on the dollar and investment companies are buying those properties with an eye toward renovating to add value and create profits. Those renovations include everything from new exterior facades to updated lobbies, re-imagined conference centers and new elevators. They are re-doing everything inside of buildings, and connectivity is one of the things they are focused on. 

Companies like Airwavz are brought in to solve the in-building connectivity challenges these buildings face. In today’s market, we are addressing the needs of several buildings within large portfolios. And it’s not just interior offices that need connectivity, but also adjacent structures like parking garages. Airwavz has deployed wireless networks covering four million square feet of parking garages in major cities in the past year because employees won’t drive into what amounts to a concrete bunker if they know their mobile call is going to drop. There are many other reasons building owners are prioritizing in-building wireless connectivity, including safety applications like security cameras. 

Solving In-Building Connectivity 

How do we solve in-building connectivity? There are a variety of ways to address this question, but nothing replaces commercial-grade, neutral-host distributed antenna systems for providing in-building wireless coverage. Repeaters and signal boosters are only band-aids to pull a signal from outside into a building. The kind of high-quality indoor wireless networks building owners are now demanding require dedicated fiber, a network headend and antennas on every floor.  

And when carriers sub-license that in-building network and its propagating signal, it is now part of the national network grid for that mobile network operator. 

Furthermore, in-building coverage needs to provide connectivity to all carriers, not just one or two. 

Over the last few years, the trend has shifted dramatically in the realm of indoor wireless networks. Initially, wireless carriers would subsidize these networks for trophy assets, large venues, and extensive global enterprise clients. This practice began to change a few years ago when carriers informed building owners that they were expected to cover the costs of the in-building network infrastructure, although the carriers would continue to contribute the radio source.  

However, within the last year, this model has evolved yet again. Now, unless the project is of the magnitude of the Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention, Super Bowl, or World Cup, carriers no longer provide funding for radio sources, leaving integrators and building owners to shoulder the costs for both the network buildout and the acquisition of the radio source. 

Timing becomes especially important now that this dynamic has emerged. It takes 10 to 12 months to design and procure an in-building network. Carriers are three years out on their macro network planning and site identification. The sooner we start working with the wireless carriers, the sooner in-building networks can be on air. 

Although many aspects of in-building coverage have shifted in the past four years, one thing is for certain; indoor connectivity is no longer something that is nice to have, it’s a must-have regardless of the asset type.