Technology Memo: Cellular Coverage

 

Brandeis Technology Memo1

No. 1 Topic: Cellular Coverage on the Brandeis Campus

Cell phones are the foot soldiers for an expanding mobile student body and workforce. Whether in the use of purely social communication, academic collaboration, or emergency notification, cell coverage has become a necessity of the urban experience.  This memo explores some options and makes recommendations to address suboptimal coverage on campus.

Background

Over the last few years, Library and Technology Services (LTS) has received a handful of reports from users about poor cellular coverage across campus. Further, indoor coverage rarely equals coverage outdoors, and basements and enclosed rooms are common problem areas. To address these concerns, LTS engineers have examined the cellular topology of the campus. Our campus is located on a hill, currently with poor line of sight to the closest cell tower, located on I-95. Furthermore, energy-efficient building materials, which are used across campus, impede cell signal penetration.

History

In 2010, the Networking and Systems Group (NetSys) met with In-Building Cellular to discuss installing a DAS (distributed antenna system) on campus to support the dorms. This would involve placing a central antenna at a high point on campus, from which we would run fiber to each of the network closets in the dorms. From there, we could install what is basically a cellular access point in each hallway.

DAS, as the state of the art, would be the best (and potentially the only) solution to improve cell coverage in many of the problematic dorms, which have relatively thick and dense construction.

We decided not to pursue the DAS solution primarily because of the very high cost; the necessary multimillion dollar investment eclipsed the value of the project. While ensuring a robust communications infrastructure for the university is part of the LTS mission, accepting responsibility for cellular performance and coverage on campus is arguably a significant expansion of scope. This also gave us pause.

Current Projects

In the fall of 2013, Brandeis was approached by AT&T and a few third-party vendors with a request to place a tower on the roof of the Volen Center in the center of campus. In short, the university negotiated terms with AT&T to replace the roof on Volen, pay for all installation and maintenance costs of the tower, and pay Brandeis a "lease" fee once they have recouped their investment.

In November of 2013, John Unsworth, Andrew Flagel, David Bunis, John Storti, and Nick Ragusa met to discuss the proposal from AT&T. It was decided in this meeting that we should pursue other providers, Verizon in particular.

In the fall of 2014, Goodman Networks and Verizon Wireless approached Brandeis with a similar interest in the roof of Volen for the potential installation of a cellular antenna. As of December 2014, they have completed multiple site surveys, a lead assessment, and a power evaluation. University Services (in coordination with LTS) is the Brandeis unit to take point on this project and any future negotiations.

Going Forward

In reviewing the market for cellular coverage solutions, it has become apparent that there are no easy fixes (i.e., nothing effective and inexpensive to deploy or maintain). Further, there is quite a bit of development toward creating VoIP applications on mobile phones, thus permitting the use of the wireless data network to support or supplement the cellular network.

LTS has also engaged our current wireless vendor, Aruba, on the future of their wireless access points. We have reason to believe they are or will be working on an LTE/4G integrated solution that might enable us to provide cellular coverage through the existing wireless network or incrementally as the wireless network is refreshed. While this may be a possibility, their recommendation was for us to invest in a DAS solution if the value proposition warrants it, as any integrated system from Aruba is still a number of years away.

Direction

In summary, we do not believe that the data supports the scale of investment a campus wide DAS solution would require.  We therefore intend to:

  • continue to work with AT&T and Verizon to install a tower on the roof of Volen;
  • survey parts of campus to determine the problematic areas, both before and after the installation of the antenna, which we shall pursue over the summer of 2015;
  • if necessary and possible, fill in small critical areas with microcells;
  • continue to investigate VoIP telephony solutions provided by our current phone system vendor (Cisco) or alternatives. In early 2015, we intend to take a closer look at Cisco Jabber as a possible supplement to our VoIP telephony environment.


Author(s): Nick Ragusa, Michael Corn
Reviewed: 1/1/2015
Approved: January 2015


1Created by LTS, Brandeis Technology Memos are brief position papers that outline a technological direction for LTS and Brandeis University. With technology changing as fast as it does, the typical “lifespan” of a Technology Memo is three years. Please feel free to contact us by sending email to the techmemo-group@brandeis.edu