The value of in-building communications

     With an increasing frequency, building code and ordinances nationwide are including standards that require all newly constructed commercial buildings to include radio coverage to provide for public safety signals within the building. In fact, occupancy permits in many cities — Las Vegas; Burbank, Calif.; Boston; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and others — are issued only if owners meet these ordinances. Nationwide, many jurisdictions are utilizing the National Fire Protection Association and International Fire Code specifications for in-building, two-way public safety radio systems (such as NFPA-1 and IFC 2009).

     With all these ordinances in place, why do less than 1/3 of the nation's first responders actually have the capabilities to communicate from inside buildings to command and control post outside, or the ability to integrate with the building's automation system to view video systems showing elevators, offices, stairwells, etc.?

     In today's technologically capable world, an in-building wireless (IBW) solution is a must-have amenity. In the online magazine and Web resource's February 2008 edition, building owners rated the ability to coordinate with local emergency responders as the most important public safety feature they could offer.

     Thousands of law enforcement and public safety agencies nationwide have already obtained 4.9 GHz licenses that will facilitate in-building communications. These new broadband systems, when tied into the building automation systems, provide law enforcement officials and first responders with access to video from security cameras, as well as clear, two-way communications with individuals inside difficult-to-reach building areas. With these systems in place, officials can access pertinent information to help expedite and coordinate rescue plans while managing an emergency in a rapid, efficient manner.

Primary means of communication

     According to the Wall Street Journal, Research in Motion (the Canadian company that makes BlackBerry smartphones) shipped 10.1 million handsets in Q3 2009 — far more than the 9.6 million analysts expected — and Apple, maker of the popular iPhone, sold 704 million phones as of its September quarter of 2009. Additionally, RIM expects to ship between 10.6 and 11.2 million handsets in Q4 2009. Overall, strategy analytics forecast that global shipments of all handsets in the final quarter of 2009 will rise 3 percent from the previous year to reach approximately 300 million units.

     The aforementioned figures underscore the fact that mobile phones are now a primary means of communication — and they need to work indoors as well as outdoors. However, reports by the In-Building Wireless Association (IBWA) indicate that real estate and public safety communities are challenged with providing full in-building coverage for mobile phones. IBWA states the areas designated as having the greatest need for coverage improvements include parking garages, elevators and open areas.

     The trend of smartphones becoming the primary means of communication shows no signs of decreasing. So it stands to reason that strengthening weak cell signals — so individuals can utilize the devices indoors — should be a primary concern for IT managers and building owners. Imagine if a laptop only worked outside a building and had no connectivity inside an office or apartment building — a ridiculous notion, but smartphones are essentially computers.

Benefits of mobile & fixed wireless solutions

     An IBW infrastructure leverages a distributed antenna system (DAS) for in-building cellular coverage. The antennas boost weak cell tower signals, or in the case of public safety, help carry the 700 or 800 MHz first responder communications throughout an enclosed area. DAS installments also allow Wi-Fi or WLAN signals to scale more efficiently.

     Employing best practices for IBW should be conducted through partnerships with in-building wireless vendors — who in turn, have close relationships with carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc. These relationships can reduce capital expense and ensure interoperability with primary technologies of 3G, 4G wireless and 802.11n networks — not to mention the specialization and solutions for tough RF environments.

     Ubiquitous coverage and public safety radio communications remain an integral part of providing public safety as well as expediting emergency response time in all commercial buildings — from office buildings, to hospitals, to college campuses. Overall, the more efficient and prepared first responder teams are, the more effectively they can control an emergency situation and save lives.

     Agencies have utilized in-vehicle mobile repeaters to provide an increased or extended coverage in areas where their radio system coverage is not optimal. Although such solutions can increase radio coverage within a building to some degree, they aren't designed to address the unique radio frequency propagation characteristics of each building's design, size or location. Often responders do not know how well their radios will work until they are within the building and lose communications. Conversely, a properly designed IBW DAS provides a predictable coverage expectation for first responders. Design considerations include multiple variables, such as:

  • What RF systems are operating within the building?
  • What is the expected percentage of coverage of the building and at what signal strength?
  • What areas are considered as must-have coverage areas, such as fire control rooms or stairwells?

     Once the various factors are considered, a solution is designed to provide a reliable in-building public safety radio enhancement.

The value of IBW

     According to IBWA, there is an aggregate value within a building, estimated at more than $5 per square foot, per building, per year associated with IBW deployments. An investment in an IBW solution of 55 cents to $1.25 translates into at least five times return on the value of a building — with potential public safety savings estimated between $59 to $130 million annually for fire emergencies alone, including:

  • Wireless monitoring and management of building operating systems (HVAC, security, lighting, elevators, etc.) and
  • Energy savings — with wireless integration of building automation systems.

     Mobile communications and data requirements, as well as the need for clear first responder communications, must be a requirement in all commercial buildings.

     With the rising demand for these services, building owners, stadiums, university campuses, malls, hospitals and other highly frequented public areas should seriously consider deploying an IBW technology. Much like the technology's ability to amplify signals and public safety response, the value of communications at one's fingertips is also multiplied when lives are on the line.

     A public safety veteran with more than 20 years of experience, David Tuttle works as director of public safety for Cellular Specialties Inc., which offers products and services to help public safety agencies secure mission-critical in-building solutions.