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How Outdated Antennas Are Crippling 5G Connectivity in Office Buildings

Cell phone usage around the world is the highest it’s ever been. In the decade between 2011 and 2021, the share of Americans who own smartphones more than doubled, with 85 percent of Americans now owning the handheld devices, according to the Pew Research Center. Our phones can be used for everything from dimming lights to paying the bill at a restaurant. Cell phones and mobile devices have become so integrated into our daily life that it can be hard to go about your daily routine without one. At the office, workers have become increasingly reliant on mobile devices for routine workday tasks like meetings and writing emails. So when cell phone service is poor inside a building, it can be a big problem for office tenants, and in turn, office landlords. Unfortunately, many buildings are just not equipped for the latest high-speed cell technology.

The way cell service functions in buildings is a lot like how a radio works. Put simply, radio waves are used to transmit data between the transmitting tower, your phone and back. When you’re outside, you’ll typically get a better signal because radio waves are able to travel freely through the air with little to no barriers. But when you’re inside an office building, those radio waves are often blocked or hindered by walls, floors, and other kinds of materials, leading to poor reception or a lost signal altogether. 

Office buildings in particular can have a lot of issues with reception, as explained to me using the analogy of a car losing radio reception when driving through a tunnel. But while radios are very similar to how they use radio waves, cell phones have advanced greatly which has created more demand for better signal. “Suddenly you get this double whammy of wanting to do more with your phone or cellular connectivity, and it’s become harder to do anything,” said Sanjaya Ranasinghe, Director of R&D at WiredScore, an organization that assesses the level of digital connectivity of a building through a rating and certification system. He pointed to the outdated equipment in office buildings that weren’t designed to handle certain frequencies as one culprit. 

The major U.S. cell phone carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T) buy licenses for cell wave frequencies from the federal government so there are no issues with interference. JLL’s Jason Lund is currently working with a major client with several office buildings around the country that is experiencing poor cell service throughout their properties. After having someone walk the entirety of the space, where they scanned and took measurements for all three carriers, Lund and his team made a surprising discovery. Even in buildings using the highest level of connectivity equipment, what’s known as distributed antenna systems (DAS), a network of small antennas placed around a building that can keep coverage uniform throughout the property, many were antiquated or not broadcasting at the right frequencies for full 5G service. 

When 5G technology was gearing up to be deployed in the U.S. around 2018, it came with a ton of hype, and for good reason. 5G is significantly faster than 4G and from a business perspective, can help improve productivity and reduce costs. It’s also been touted as a technology with much higher security and reliability, and can move large amounts of data across devices much more quickly. On top of aging systems, coverage is also being disrupted by innovative technology meant to cut down on energy costs. The energy-efficient windows or Low-E glass that are becoming more common in green buildings also present a barrier to cell reception. “For the same reason they’re great at keeping out sun waves, they’re keeping out radio waves,” Lund said.

The problem with DAS systems that are 5 to 10 years old is that they aren’t designed to handle higher frequencies that are used for things like video calls or streaming. Lower frequencies may be great for phone calls, texting, or emails, but they are terrible for trying to FaceTime or stream a movie on Netflix. All carriers have between 7 to 9 bands they broadcast on, and your phone decides the clearest signal to use the frequency. As smartphones have evolved and we look to do more with them than we did several years ago, carriers need more frequencies to handle more capacity. Each carrier’s makeup of the kinds of bands they own is different. For instance, T-Mobile has a heavy amount of frequencies in the high bands, while Verizon has much less. This disparity between carriers means that office building workers can have much different experiences with their cell phone coverage in the workplace depending on what carrier they use. 

The increased demand on building systems to provide fast and reliable cell coverage means building owners need to upgrade older equipment in order to keep up with advancing technology. A lot of buildings don’t have DAS systems at all, which is a big problem considering how the higher bands of today don’t travel through walls very well in the way lower bands can. “As 5G continues, buildings without any cellular enhancement will be in a really bad way,” Lund said. Buildings with older DAS systems that aren’t compatible with 5G will continue to grow outdated and perform worse, like an old cell phone, something that’s already happening. Fixing the problem is step one, though replacing an entire DAS system can be quite expensive. A property owner can expect to pay between $500,000 to $1 million for one, depending on the size of the building. But owners also have the option of updating just parts of a DAS system, like access points, instead of ripping out the entire system altogether. 

One of Lund’s clients that had committed to 10 floors in a New York office building in a 10-year lease was having a lot of issues with poor 5G service and needed to improve their coverage. In this particular case, there were restrictions on the building itself that didn’t allow for a full-building DAS, but the client had enough space to warrant buying their own cellular enhancement system. Lund recommended in this case to have the building’s DAS system managed by someone for the 10-year period. It would also need to be upgraded every few years as part of the service, and there are a lot of companies that provide that kind of service.

For buildings less than 500,000 square feet in size, it can be hard for a DAS system to pencil. Instead, owners can look at more affordable options. Small cell technology is a system where several small radio units are stationed around a building instead of a huge set of equipment in the basement like in a DAS setup. There’s also the option to borrow a signal from outside. A bidirectional antenna is a small piece of equipment that can be placed on a rooftop and pointed toward the nearest carrier antenna, where it will then pull the signal in, allowing it to be distributed throughout the building. These are often used to provide basic cell phone service in parking garages. Small cell tech and repeater systems are low-cost solutions owners can look at to boost service without breaking the bank. 

Though boosting service throughout a building can be expensive upfront, and certainly has been historically with DAS systems, those in the industry are seeing more affordable solutions emerge and more costs shifting onto longer expense contracts. When WiredScore first launched in 2013 in New York, cell coverage wasn’t one of the criteria the company assessed in its certification standards. But that has changed over the last 10 years as buildings are focusing more on mobile coverage. Now, WiredScore runs two certifications for new developments and existing buildings on mobile performance. A heightened awareness of the importance of cell coverage and performance and how they can fix problems relating to it is something that owners should be talking to occupiers about, and going even further, taking steps in the beginning to address the issue, like doing scans of a building to assess cell coverage.

As we continue to put more demands on what our cell phones can do and how quickly they can do it, buildings will need to keep up with the latest tech advances to keep office tenants happy. Office tenants are becoming more aware of cell coverage issues and how building systems factor into connectivity, so they will be expecting more from a modern workspace. Issues will no doubt continue to happen in buildings with aging connectivity infrastructure, but fortunately, there are solutions at different price points that owners can look to in figuring out the right strategy for their property.

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