How can the demands of customers for indoor coverage be met?

Only 2-3% of buildings currently have in-building wireless networks, which could cause problems in the future as the industry changes to 5G.


The growing number of mobile devices and connections inside buildings highlights the importance of understanding the nature of indoor network connectivity, and in particular cellular connectivity.

Mobile devices are the main source of connectivity for most people, and the same is increasingly true for things- that is, the internet of things and machine-to-machine communications.

As the wireless industry evolves towards 5G, indoor mobile communication will become ever more prevalent. However, the problem is that only 2-3% of buildings are equipped with in-building wireless networks (IBWs).

The demand for IBW meets the reality of indoor environments

“Currently, only a handful of people can go through their day without being hooked up to a Wi-Fi connection or a cellular network, given that being connected has become a necessity for users”- Andrés Vega, Technical Sales Manager at CommScope.

Wi-Fi networks were designed as best-effort systems for data but not for voice and, even then, they only work for data when users have access to the network and have completed the steps required to sign up to it. “Mobile connectivity is essential in the business world: from conferences to asset monitoring, a reliable wireless connection is required”.

According to several studies carried out by major service suppliers, over 80% of cellular calls originate from or end inside buildings. This percentage is expected to rise in line with the increasing number of wireless applications that are gradually permeating houses and buildings.

Many restaurants, for instance, are using wireless applications or ordering systems that enable faster sales with higher profit margins. Retail businesses are using mobile apps to better promote their products and services in real time, gaining a better understanding of the behavior and interests of their customers.

In this way, the arrival of 5G will accelerate progress towards a primarily wireless future, as 5G will offer much greater data transmission speeds, enhanced reliability and lower latency than the previous generations of mobile technology.

However, there is a major obstacle to meeting future connectivity expectations: the current state of in-building coverage. At present, most buildings depend on the outdoor macro network to provide the required coverage and capacity, but an adequate signal does not penetrate many constructions.

The thick concrete walls, the steel used in the construction materials, and the insulating glass block or restrict the propagation of wireless signal inside buildings, resulting in in-building cellular service that is limited, or in many cases non-existent.

“We have a critical gap among wireless users, who are ever more dependent on having constant wireless connectivity, and on these connections being available. Many people assume that the providers of mobile connectivity services are responsible for providing coverage everywhere, but they can only guarantee coverage outside. Building owners are nearly always those responsible for providing IBW services”- Andrés Vega.

Speeding up the implementation of IBW

Familiarity is the fundamental problem with speeding up the implementation of IBW networks. In a new building, an IBW solution must be planned and budgeted for during the design stage, in the same way as any other basic building service. It would be unthinkable for the water, gas and electricity “networks” to only be taken into account after the building has been constructed; in fact, building owners also pay for the deployment of wireless networks.

The same should apply to wireless connectivity in new constructions. Connectivity has become the “fourth service”, and those building owners that are able to offer it will have happier tenants that are willing to pay higher rents. Nevertheless, most building owners and contractors are not up to speed on the subject and are unaware of the need to provide IBW solutions.

IBW systems of this type mean that coverage for more than one mobile operator must be enabled, which is desirable as it makes various service providers available to the people that live in this kind of indoor environment. For this reason, it is important to support multiple operators in a single IBW system.

At construction level, providers of IBW solutions must explain the need to support coverage for multiple operators from scratch. An IBW system must be considered during the construction phase, when it is much less costly to install in comparison with doing so after the building has been built.

In terms of real estate, building owners must be educated about the demand for indoor wireless coverage, as well as the benefits that are generated in terms of the return on investment that the installation of an IBW solution brings. While new buildings can be designed to incorporate IBW from the outset, existing buildings must also be considered for modernization with wireless connectivity.

In the case of already existing buildings, it can also be highlighted that modern IBW systems use digital technology and existing fiber and/or ethernet cabling to carry the signal to remote antennas. This reduces the cost and complexity of implementation, compared with the heavy coaxial cabling that was commonly used in previous IBW systems (and is surprisingly still used by many at present).

Heavy coaxial cabling requires specialized installers, supports to mount the cabling and additional infrastructure, which extends implementation times and significantly increases costs. Modern IBW systems, on the other hand, make use of category 6ª and fiber cabling, leading to significant financial savings.

IBW systems operate with digital technology and strongly resemble the standard Wi-Fi networks that most buildings are already fitted with. Digital IBW systems do not require specially trained installers, maintenance personnel or expensive maintenance contracts given that they can be supported by own IT staff.

“Many business IT departments are familiar with fiber transport and category 6ª ethernet; modern IBW systems also use remote antennas that are very similar to Wi-Fi access points in terms of implementation. Digital IBW systems can, in fact, make use of existing fiber and ethernet infrastructure, drastically reducing implementation costs without affecting existing services”- Andrés Vega.

Financing models

There are three basic approaches when it comes to paying for an IBW system: financing by the operator, financing by a neutral host company or financing by the property owner.

  • Financing by the operator
    Many customers think that they can simply close a deal with an operator so that the latter can install and operate an indoor coverage system, but this model has actually become fairly uncommon.

    Operators have their hands full due to the demand involved in the deployment of macro networks. In many cases, they cannot justify the return on investment that is required to finance in-building IBW systems, and as a result this model is increasingly limited to large properties and stadiums.

  • Financing by a neutral host
    A neutral host is a company that sells an IBW system as a managed service to the building owner or the mobile operators. Companies such as ATC, Boingo, Crown Castle and ExteNet assume the cost of installing and maintaining the IBW network in exchange for a monthly rent. This approach is attractive to operators, as it changes what would be a capital expense (CAPEX) to an operating expense (OPEX) and allows them to spread the system cost over a long period of time.
  • Financing by the property owner
    Most IBW projects are currently financed by the building owner or the business client. In these cases, the client works with an IBW reseller to install the system and invite wireless service providers to join.

“In our opinion, the widespread deployment of IBW systems in commercial buildings is inevitable. When the irresistible force of increasing mobile wireless use faces up to the challenge of carrying cellular signals inside buildings, something’s got to give. Building owners are finding out that they can increase profits and rent amounts by installing IBW systems. In addition, the advanced digital technology makes it easier than ever to implement and manage these systems”- Andrés Vega, Technical Sales Manager at CommScope.