As the winter months approach up here in the Northern Hemisphere and we all spend more time inside, it’s probably an appropriate time to talk about the challenges of keeping our wireless devices working and connected indoors. According to Cisco, 80 percent of mobile traffic is consumed indoors, making this ‘last mile’ connection especially critical. Whether it’s the top floor of a high-rise office building, a crowded shopping mall or sports arena, a hospital, or even an underground subway system, subscribers expect seamless connectivity and fast data speeds wherever they go – inside and out.  And from a public safety perspective, when an emergency call is placed from a wireless device, the signal needs to work. But factors like building materials, cell tower placement, and a mix of competing network technologies can make this a challenging task.

Today, only 2% of buildings today have dedicated in-building cellular systems and very few architects across the globe plan and design buildings with this in mind, which means there are a lot of indoor spaces that lack good wireless coverage. Analyst firm predicts the In-building wireless market to be worth $16.71 billion by 2020.  While the demand is clear, there is a need to make these upgrades in an intelligent, informed way.  Proper planning is critical. The capital investment required can be costly, making a ‘measure twice, cut once’ mentality a necessary part of the process.

One essential part of any planner’s toolkit is the ability to accurately predict the coverage from a proposed indoor system to a high degree of accuracy. To achieve this, a 3D ray tracing prediction model is mandatory to account for the highly complex nature of in-building propagation.  This helps determine which components are the best fit for the proposed system and where they should be placed to deliver a high-performance design that is cost-effective. Importantly, designing an indoor system is not only a matter of providing maximum signal throughout the building; it’s a fine balancing act. On the one hand the signal strength from the indoor system needs to be sufficient to provide good coverage and overcome any interference from the macro network propagating into the building, but too much signal strength and the indoor system starts to create interference in the macro network.

All this means that network planners need to have the tools in place to plan in-building systems in co-ordination with the macro network to minimize interference and to ensure seamless movement between indoor and outdoor environments. Having the right tools can provide information on phenomena such as signal reflection and diffraction from any surrounding hard surfaces like buildings, walls, and signage. Everything needs to be accounted for, even what network planners call ‘foliage attenuation. That’s right- even bushes and trees matter. Are they deciduous or coniferous? How large are their trunks, and what do their leaves do when the wind blows?

With the introduction of 5G and IoT, the complexity continues to soar, making the planning phase even more critical. The introduction of 5G means that mobile operators will have to deal with 1000x more data traffic and 10x more connected things, compared to LTE. This will require network planning tools to have the latest simulation and predictive modelling technologies. The ability to incorporate new 5G spectrum and support massive MIMO and beam forming will become crucial.  Add to that the need to evaluate different 5G solutions, like vRAN, virtualized small cells and IoT, requires that the network planner’s toolkit is up to date.

Given all the complexities at play, there is still no detail too small when it comes to planning a wireless network. Without the right network planning tools, this can become a very expensive game of trial and error; but tools aren’t the only hurdle.  One of the biggest challenges, as more and more people seek indoor coverage, is having the expertise available to use these tools and understand how to create these complex plans. While large complex designs will probably always be the preserve of an experienced network planning expert, in many cases, especially for smaller buildings, a simpler approach is required; especially as city planning or building IT departments look to take over the planning responsibility from the service provider.  If the goal is to avoid delays and keep costs down, people without extensive RF engineering experience need to be able to plan and optimize site designs. This means planning tools need to be easy to use, with visualization features that make it easy to understand, and configurable reports and project estimates that can be created on the fly.

At TEOCO, we’ve introduced a new Indoor Wireless Planning solution called ASSET Indoor that does all this and more. As the only radio planning tool that delivers indoor modelling capabilities in co-ordination with the outdoor network, it keeps pace with growing coverage and capacity complexities presented by 5G and the Internet of Things.  It also means that companies can rely on just one tool to help them effectively and efficiently plan, design, and optimize wireless network for a range of projects.