Gaps in wireless coverage boost need for more wire

Antennas needed for tall buildings, other busy zones

January 21, 2004|By Jon Van | Jon Van,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Eric Anderson would like to use his cell phone more at work, where his job as director of tech services for a law firm keeps him away from his desk.

But on the upper floors of the Sears Tower he usually cannot get a wireless signal. "If my cell phone worked, it would give me another communication option," Anderson said.

Wireless signal problems at the downtown Chicago skyscraper underscore a problem also found in subway tunnels, airports and other high-traffic areas.

As people become more dependent upon cell phones, loss of signal becomes more frustrating. Which leads to an irony of modern communication: More wires are needed for today's wireless devices to work properly.

"Filling in coverage holes is necessary for wireless to take its proper role as the dominant technology for voice communications," said Andrew Cole, a senior vice president with Adventis, a Boston tech consultancy.

To address the problem at the Sears Tower, building managers plan to install an in-building antenna to enhance wireless communications. For the thousands who work there, the new system will enable them to make and receive calls from anywhere in the building as well as get high-speed Internet access.

It's a high-profile move that reflects a growing trend to put antennas into office buildings and subway tunnels to enhance cell phone operation.

The trend even reaches down to the home.

"A consumer can buy a booster antenna, put it on top of the house, and spread the cell phone signal to all rooms in the house," Cole said.

Boosting indoor cell phone reception "is becoming increasingly important as more people adopt wireless as their primary communications," said Bill Brickel, Verizon Wireless' executive director of network performance in Illinois and Wisconsin. Verizon Wireless is exploring several options to improve signal strength. Other cell phone service providers are endorsing similar strategies.

But it can be difficult to devise a carrier-neutral antenna system for a large indoor space such as Sears Tower. "Finding a design that several carriers agree upon can be difficult, but not impossible," Brickel said.

The Sears Tower project represents an agreement between the building's owners, MetLife Inc. and InnerWireless Inc., a company based in Richardson, Texas, that specializes in providing in-building antenna systems. The deal was arranged by Trizec Properties Inc., which manages Sears Tower, after about 18 months of testing and negotiations.

"This is demand-driven," said Stephen Budorick, Trizec senior vice president. "We won't construct in advance of need."

Getting carriers lined up to agree to pay for a shared antenna system can be tricky, but the result should work in everyone's interests, said Ed Cantwell, chief of InnerWireless. The company has done similar projects in other major structures, including Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

About 10,000 people work in the Sears Tower every day and another 4,000 people visit -- not including the 1 million tourists coming to the Sky Deck each year, said David Olsen, Trizec's manager of telecommunications initiatives.

"This will be a definite benefit to our building's tenants," Olsen said.

More in-building antenna systems are inevitable in dense urban areas, said Iain Gillott, an Austin, Texas, telecom consultant.

"When you get more cell phone users in an area and begin to run out of capacity, the carrier has to install a new cell site," Gillott said. "That means the space covered by each cell site gets smaller and smaller, which means the power of the signals must be reduced.

"The lower the signal power, the less likely it will penetrate very far into a building," Gillott explained. "So the need for antennas inside the buildings goes up."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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