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The struggle for indoor mobile coverage and the solutions

August 08, 2017 by John Lillistone, head of products for telecoms at Arqiva
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The struggle for indoor mobile coverage and the solutions

Following recent research that revealed half of UK office workers are suffering poor mobile signal in their workplace, John Lillistone, head of products for telecoms at Arqiva, unravels the increasingly complex issue of indoor mobile coverage, discussing where responsibility lies and how – through collaboration – the industry can find a solution…

We have all experienced some form of mobile coverage mishap, be it your signal cutting out during an important business meeting or missing phone calls from your boss in the midst of a crisis. In fact, these are all too familiar scenarios for those of us living and working in the UK – according to a recent study by Arqiva, as many as 1 in 2 of us (49%) claim to have experienced mobile coverage issues within our office building, some as frequently as every week (72%) or even daily (25%).
For a nation striving to lead the way in the 5G rollout, and with 80% of all mobile phone calls being made from inside a building (according to Informa), the stats signal a real and growing issue.
So why are indoor coverage woes persisting at a time when the world is so digitally connected, and who should we be looking to for a solutions?

Food, water, air… and phone signal

As members of today’s mobile workforce – a generation of employees that have come to expect connectivity as standard, whenever and wherever – our mobile phones are no longer just a personal communications device but an integral part of our working, office-based lives.
Our study – conducted among 1,000 UK office workers – revealed that 43% of people find poor mobile coverage significantly impacts (or would impact) their ability to do their job properly, whether that’s being unable to get in touch with clients or colleagues, tasks taking longer that they should, or simply making them uncontactable.
Our reliance on mobile coverage to do our jobs should come as no surprise, but the emotional impact could also be cause for company concern: a quarter (26%) of our respondents admitted that a lack of mobile coverage at work causes them extreme levels of stress and frustration.
Up to now, many businesses have neglected to prepare fully for the demands for complete mobile coverage or even considered how they can improve signal within their own building. With the impact to employees and their productivity clear, this has to change.

The blame game

But who (or what) is behind the coverage issues we experience day-to-day, and whose responsibility should it be to fix them?
It’s not just a general lack of understanding about how mobile coverage actually works that is hindering progress towards a solution here, but wide-spread confusion around which parties are both capable of and responsible for resolving the issues.
Our research highlighted exactly this, with consumers pointing the finger at a wide variety of sources – from mobile network operators (MNOs) and IT managers, to building designers and the devices themselves – for the problems they encounter.
However, it is not the sole responsibility of any one party to address indoor network issues; instead, it is a responsibility that must be shared – particularly among facilities managers, building planners and businesses.
In order to respond to and ultimately resolve issues, we must first understand the root cause of the problem.

Bringing the network inside

To get technical, the key to effective indoor mobile coverage and capacity is far-travelling and uninterrupted signal – something that today’s modern building materials, i.e. metallised insulation, steel frames, treated glass etc., do their best to block.  
It’s a problem that will heighten with the progression to 5G as, typically speaking, the higher the mobile communications frequency the shorter the range, and the more susceptible the signal will be to interruptions from even the most standard building materials.
The fix therefore is to put the network inside the buildings via an in-building solution. But even here, ownership can look complicated.
Most buildings today are multi-use and multi-occupancy, meaning there isn’t the business case for MNOs to fund separate in-building solutions. Instead, the requirement is for building and facilities managers to implement infrastructure that will support all operators.
This can be achieved via distributed antenna systems (DAS), installed throughout a building to provide mobile coverage for the people inside and nearby. This network of small antennas is linked back to a central control hub, and in turn to MNO base stations – ensuring a strong mobile signal inside the building and reliable service for customers of all networks.
A perfect solution – but one that absolutely requires cross party collaboration!

The fifth utility

You could say that mobile coverage has become the fifth utility in a building, as much an expected necessity as gas, water, electricity, and broadband.
Mobile coverage can no longer be an after-thought for business owners and building managers. Sufficient connectivity is not only essential for businesses in gaining and retaining the best employees (our data suggests 1 in 4 Brits would move jobs as a result of office signal ‘black spots’), but for buildings managers in keeping the best clients.
It is therefore a collective responsibility – MNOs working with building managers, building managers working with business – to make sure effective solutions are implemented.
For business owners that means making visits to new locations to check mobile coverage before making an agreement to move in, while business and facilities managers need to start exploring the best in-building solutions for their offices and making the case to the MNOs.
Eventually this will trigger a step change in the industry’s approach to in-building solutions and commercial property professionals will begin considering their implementation as part of new builds, rather than retrofitting, which is a more complex and expensive operation.
We know mobile coverage usage is trending upwards. As network demands continue to increase and higher frequencies emerge as we move closer towards 5G, it is this collective responsibility that will start resolving the issues we feel so pertinently today.

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