Plugging holes one SpotCell at a time

It’s a familiar and frustrating situation, standing in an underground parking garage beside a car that won’t start, holding a mobile phone that can’t get a signal; or by a remote wiring closet where the only communication option is a radio, which, the moment the user crossed some invisible but important threshold, ceased to win access to the network.

It’s maddening. But a mobile carrier says it means to banish this phenomenon to the history books. Telus Mobility is teaming up with Spotwave Wireless Inc. to ensure strong un-tethered connections in hard-to-reach parts of buildings. The service provider will sell Spotwave’s SpotCell in-building repeaters to companies looking to cover mobile dark spots in basements, tunnels and other places where signals tend to fade.

According to Robert Blumenthal, Telus Mobility’s vice-president, products and services, a wireless carrier can only do so much to ensure mobile coverage.

“The macro network that we operate with cell sites is very good and quite extensive,” he said, but sometimes walls present “a barrier to radio frequencies.”

Telus Mobility will help customers decide where the SpotCells should go and how many are required to ensure connectivity. They’re meant for buildings up to 10,000 square-metres in size. “If the site’s big enough, we go to another solution, a radio repeater-enhancer,” Blumenthal said. “It’s more cost effective.”

The SpotCell comprises an antenna near the wireless dark spot and a cable that connects to another antenna sitting atop the building. Blumenthal said the SpotCells that Telus Mobility offers are meant to boost this service provider’s signals, to ensure coverage on its 1X service, Mike network and PCS service.

Spotwave said it also sells repeaters for other carriers.

Albian Sands Energy Inc. in Fort McMurray, Alta., uses SpotCells to boost coverage. The firm operates the Muskeg River Mine, where employees use wireless devices to keep in touch with headquarters. If a worker is hurt on the job, he needs a way to call for help.

“Our people are valuable,” said Ian Parkinson, the IT coordinator, explaining how important human resources are to Albian. “We can’t get engineers. Our field operations people, whether in processing or the mine, you can’t just train them overnight. It takes years to get them to the point where they can be effective.”

Parkinson said Albian had three coverage holes: at the river water pump house in a valley near the Athabasca River; in the thickener tunnels, which provide maintenance access to the bitumen pump mechanism (six storeys underground); and in the ore-prep building, where massive dump trucks unload.

Albian’s network solutions provider Tridon Communications installed the SpotCells. Parkinson said it was the right choice. At the ore-prep building, for example, “they put an antenna on the outside, one (SpotCell) on the first floor and one on the second floor. The whole problem went away.”

But are other building owners and tenants clamouring for the sort of insurance that Spotwave’s devices provide? Oxford Properties Group certainly isn’t. After a troubled pilot project to boost coverage in some of its skyscrapers, this Toronto developer is wireless shy.

In 2001 Oxford installed a system to boost wireless coverage in some of its office towers. The firm boasted about the undertaking, telling tenants that here they had a landlord working hard to ensure mobile service.

But the system didn’t work as planned, neither business nor technology-wise.

In high-speed elevators, for example, the cars moved too fast for the radios to hand off calls between floors. “Calls would be dropped like crazy,” said Geoff Brodkorb, Oxford’s chief marketing officer. “That was a big deal for us.”

As well, telcos didn’t seem interested in the coverage project. Brodkorb said Oxford’s partner, Azonic Networks Inc., needed the carriers to succeed.

Besides, tenants weren’t screaming for improved mobile phone coverage.

Then Azonic went under.

Now Oxford steps carefully when it comes to wireless.

“We’ve decided not to take a proactive stance to develop the technology in our properties,” Brodkorp said. “We just decided it’s somebody else’s business.”

Rogers AT&T Wireless is in the business of providing adequate mobile service to its customers. That’s why this carrier installed a distributed antenna system at its office on Bloor Street in Toronto, to make sure employees rarely experience faded signals.

According to Arnold Abramowitz, Rogers’ director of radio engineering, it’s important to balance cost and potential benefits when deciding whether to install in-building systems. For example, his firm decided not to get involved with Azonic, because the price of entry was too high and the projected returns too low.

Rogers found it more cost effective to build more cell sites downtown.

“One well-placed site will cover four or five large office towers to the point of satisfaction for our customers,” Abramowitz said.

For Rogers’ clients seeking boosted in-building coverage, however, the carrier also distributes Spotwave’s SpotCells. “It’s a way to satisfy the customer’s needs,” Abramowitz said.