Hotels and casinos pride themselves on providing a great guest experience, and they work hard to deliver amenities such as swimming pools, meeting rooms, restaurants and spas. But mobile phone connectivity is often the one amenity that can determine whether guests will stay at, and return to, a given venue.
Guests now think of mobile connectivity as a third utility, alongside water and electricity, and they want to be able to use their mobile phones everywhere. However, newer mobile radio frequencies, which often are those supporting the latest 4G LTE services, don’t always reach the interiors of buildings. In-building wireless systems provide the strong and ubiquitous indoor mobile phone connectivity that keeps guests happy.
INDOOR WIRELESS ISSUES
When mobile phones first came out 20 years ago, mobile operators used relatively low frequencies (800-900 MHz) to transmit their signals. These signals could easily penetrate building walls, so mobile operators were not focused on augmenting their networks with in-building wireless systems. Instead, they focused on building outdoor (macro network) cell sites. But as mobile operators rolled out 3G and 4G wireless technology, they began using higher frequencies (1900-2100 MHz), and many buildings blocked these frequencies or seriously attenuated them, making indoor coverage spotty. In just a couple of years from now, new 5G wireless networks will use even higher frequencies, making indoor coverage impossible without in-building systems.
Capacity is another problem. On a crowded casino floor or in a showroom, there may be dozens or even hundreds of people who want to use their mobile phones at the same time, and they will compete for access to the network. This means that in-building wireless solutions must support high capacity as well as ubiquitous coverage.
Besides coverage and capacity, an in-building wireless solution must support multiple frequencies and multiple operators. Today, mobile operators use everything from 700 MHz up to 2100/2300/2500 MHz frequencies to deliver their services, and a useful in-building system must support them all.
INDOOR WIRELESS SOLUTIONS
To bring mobile coverage and capacity indoors, building owners must deploy in-building wireless systems. There are two basic types of solution: Distributed antenna systems (DAS), which connect to a mobile operator signal source (a repeater or base station) and distribute the signal in a building using ceiling- or wall-mounted remote antennas; and small cells, which work like Wi-Fi access points, providing the mobile operator signal and local distribution of that signal in one unit.
DAS have been around for about 20 years. They are used extensively in large venues (stadiums, airports, large commercial buildings), and are now available in packages that are suitable for smaller buildings as well. The DAS head-end is usually located in the telco equipment room, where a main hub connects to the mobile operator base stations. Then, cabling connects the main hub to either intermediate hubs or directly to remote amplifiers/antennas or both.
Early DAS (passive DAS) used thick, heavy coaxial cabling to connect the mobile operator signal source with the remote antennas scattered throughout a property. However, in a passive DAS, the wireless signal attenuates over long coaxial cable runs, and it is difficult to engineer a system so it provides uniform coverage at each remote antenna because antenna locations vary in their distance from the signal source. In many regions of the world, pure passive DAS has given way to active DAS solutions that use either a mix of fiber optic and coaxial cable (known as hybrid fiber/coax solutions) or solutions that use fiber optic cable end-to-end and employ remote amplifiers to ensure uniform signals at each antenna point.
Small cells have emerged within the last few years. They combine the mobile signal source and remote antenna in one unit, which is connected (or backhauled) to the mobile operator’s network through Ethernet cabling, much like a Wi-Fi access point. Small cells are suitable for providing access to 16-32 users, so a midsized or large building will need several or dozens of them to deliver ubiquitous service. A hotel/casino might require hundreds of small cells—an expensive and complex proposition. In addition, small cells deliver only one or, at best, two mobile operator frequencies, and since the four major U.S. mobile operators employ many different frequencies, users will have to install more than one small cell in each location in order to support all the desired services.
However, one area where small cells can be particularly useful is in providing the radio signal to a DAS. Traditionally, the signal source for a DAS is a carrier-grade base station that can cost a minimum of $30,000 and puts out a lot of power, which must be attenuated before it can be used by the DAS. By using a small cell, you can reduce the cost to a couple of thousand dollars, eliminate any need for specialized HVAC or electrical power, and use a signal whose power level matches the input requirements of a DAS (thus eliminating use of bulky and expensive signal attenuators).
INDOOR WIRELESS DECISION
In large venues like airports, stadiums or arenas, mobile operators want to protect their customers’ satisfaction, and so they have taken on the responsibility for deploying in-building wireless systems in these locations. But in most cases, hotels and casinos must shoulder the burden themselves. How to begin?
The best place to start is with an in-building systems consultant, vendor or integrator who can assist you in finding the right solution. Ideally, you want to deploy a multi-frequency “neutral host” system through which several mobile operators can deliver services, because you can’t predict which specific mobile services your guests will use.
Financing is another consideration. In-building systems can cost anywhere from $0.50-$2.00 per square foot depending on a number of factors such as building construction, coverage area requirements and local building codes; so in larger facilities the total deployment could run hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, vendors and system integrators have begun offering financing packages to spread out the cost over time.
Other than overall cost, there are several considerations to keep in mind when selecting an in-building wireless system:
Performance—The whole point of installing an in-building solution is to ensure high availability and high capacity where it is needed. You should consider a system that provides both coverage and capacity. With a DAS you can direct capacity to areas where it’s needed, while a small cell approach could only be scaled by adding more small cells.
Multi-frequency support—This factor is related to performance because you want to deliver all of the frequencies the major mobile operators in your area are using. As mentioned previously, small cell solutions deliver one or two frequencies per unit, so you would have todeploy two to four small cells in each location to provide all of the required frequencies. In contrast, some DAS solutions support up to eight mobile operator frequencies with a single layer of equipment. This also protects your investment downstream.
Ease of deployment—Most casinos run 24/7, so a system that is easier to deploy will minimize disruption to your patrons and staff. Look for a system that looks and feels like the other equipment your IT staff is used to dealing with, and which uses thin cabling that will fit easily above ceilings or inside conduit. If you choose a fiber-fed DAS, for example, you may be able to use existing, unused fiber in your network to connect the remote antennas. In addition, some DAS solutions are much simpler than others in terms of the number of components that must be connected. This will not only simplify installation, but will also minimize maintenance costs in terms of sparing.
Total cost of ownership—In many in-building systems, the long-term cost of ownership is an important consideration because many systems must be upgraded to support new frequencies as mobile operators begin to use them. Upgrading requires new costs for additional equipment, and it also requires additional disruption to your facility—in some instances it can lead to installation of a second layer of equipment or a “fork lift” upgrade of the existing system. You should choose a solution that’s as “future-proof” as possible; one that offers built-in support for a broad mix of services and for future frequencies.
As the world moves beyond 4G to 5G technologies, in-building wireless systems will be required to provide the mobile experience hotel and casino guests expect. By planning carefully and taking a few key factors into consideration, hotels and casinos can deploy in-building systems that reliably deliver an essential amenity for years to come.