Supporting wireless communications in high-rise buildings has become a necessity for facility managers and owners. While it may not be the first amenity that comes to mind to give a high-rise building a competitive advantage, there’s no service more important to communications or critical to life safety.
In today’s wireless world, no one will lease premium space in a high-rise office or apartment if they have to stand near the closest window to make a call, update their calendar, or send a message. Robust wireless connectivity in high-rise buildings is no longer nice to have; it’s a must-have for routine and emergency communications. In a competitive market, lackluster wireless coverage can be a deal-breaker for many tenants.
Public-safety communication is an important consideration, too. Statistically, the majority of emergency incidents occur indoors. Similarly, more than 80 percent of all cellular traffic occurs indoors. When most people are faced with an emergency, they instinctively reach for their mobile device – not a landline – to call 911.
When most people are faced with an emergency, they instinctively reach for their mobile device – not a landline – to call 911.
But wireless coverage inside buildings has always has been a challenge, especially in urban environments. According to Donny Jackson, the editor of Urgent Communications, “Radio signals lose strength as they encounter physical obstacles, whether it is in the form of a mountain, a dense forest, or a manmade structure, like a high-rise office building or an apartment complex. Making the challenge more difficult are advances in the energy efficiency of buildings. The designs and materials used to keep buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer while using less power are significantly more resistant to radio signals. In these energy-efficient buildings, the idea that radio signals from an outdoor tower will be able to penetrate consistently inside a building to provide indoor coverage – particularly coverage that does not drain battery life from a device – is no longer realistic.”
As buildings become more resistant to wireless signals, it has become necessary to enhance wireless connectivity inside high rises. Fortunately, building owners and managers have an opportunity to get ahead of this challenge and tilt the scales in their favor for many years to come. The decisions you make today could pay tremendous dividends for your building and the safety it offers to the tenants who call it their home or their place of work.
Deploying wireless coverage inside the structure will provide a robust signal that translates into better audio quality, higher throughput speeds, and longer battery life for users’ devices. Taking this approach can provide better location data from the device, including the vertical – or “Z axis” – information vital during public and life safety communication. To enhance wireless coverage, many high-rise projects have deployed distributed antenna systems (DAS), a proven technology already used in stadiums and hospitals.
Life safety may not always be the first thing on your mind – we all have social media feeds to check, meetings to attend, and dinners to plan – but you can almost guarantee that it rises to the top when a major incident or emergency happens.
If your tenants can’t make a phone call or send a text message for help, then emergency personnel can’t respond. The FCC recognized the ubiquity of wireless when it adopted new 911 rules designed to bolster indoor location accuracy information from wireless devices, making it easier for first responders to locate building occupants.
When first responders arrive, they need to be able to communicate in order to coordinate actions. A building’s materials and design can significantly limit police, fire, and EMT radio transmission, creating dead zones in remote areas and at higher floors. A communications disruption during an emergency can have serious negative impacts on the outcome.
This reality, which came to national attention on Sept. 11, 2001, is driving building code requirements and technological advances. The International Fire Code Council (IFCC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publish the most important and widely recognized codes and standards for in-building wireless communications. These organizations are currently working on updated standards that have started to impact building code as local jurisdictions adopt them.
There are differences between what is published by the IFCC and the NFPA, so it’s important to be aware of what’s adopted via ordinance in specific jurisdictions. The codes issued by the IFCC and NFPA are typically updated on a three-year cycle. While frequency of change for local codes can vary depending on the community, most jurisdictions rarely go longer than six years before modifications are adopted.
Once in-building wireless communications standards have been established in fire and building codes, architects and engineers, commercial developers, and building owners can plan for in-building wireless as an integral part of the facility’s infrastructure. Today’s challenge for building owners with projects underway is to anticipate the requirements and plan for them rather than waiting for local codes, standards, and jurisdictional guidelines to force their hand in the not-so-distant future.
Today’s challenge for building owners with projects underway is to anticipate the requirements and plan for them rather than waiting for local codes, standards, and jurisdictional guidelines to force their hand in the not-so-distant future.
Owners and managers of high-rise buildings are facing new communications challenges, but they aren’t alone. Providing reliable communications is a shared responsibility. Wireless carriers, tenants, emergency responders, insurance agencies, and law firms are just some of the entities that have a stake and role in this emerging technology, its capabilities, and regulation.
While in-building communications is no longer a luxury, it comes with a cost. One of the ongoing industry discussions among stakeholders is how to fund and manage in-building networks without causing unfair financial burdens. We should reward building owners who invest in communications technology that makes their facilities safer. Insurance premium savings could (and should) address the cost of implementing such a mission-critical system.