The many benefits of DC

The many benefits of DC's mobile-coverage map

DC-NET’s Citywide In-building Wireless Initiative started as a simple project to improve productivity by expanding service in Washington, D.C.’s government buildings. What it turned into was an invaluable collection of big data affecting everything from safety measures to government carrier choice to the future of small cell technology across the United States.

Safety first

When the Office of the Chief Technology Officer surveyed what the District’s CIOs were looking for when it came to improved cell service, better access for public safety topped the list. This not only shifted where OCTO focused its coverage expansion, but prompted a whole “rethink” of how coverage was implemented, explained Shawn Thompson, the DC-NET wireless engineer who headed up the project.

“Traditionally, if a building needed wireless coverage augmented, they would install what’s called DAS [distributed antenna system]," Thompson explained. "But generally speaking, when DAS is installed, it typically only covers areas where people work -- mainly because that is where they would use their phones. However, from a public safety standpoint, the program elected to expand that coverage to areas that needed it in event of emergency.”

Those areas would include stairwells, basements, garages -- anywhere people might be isolated without service or where they might shelter in an emergency.

To meet those needs, the scope of work expanded to include first responder radio coverage, battery backups and special cabinets that can withstand water spray -- what Thompson called a more expensive but necessary part of emergency preparedness to make the systems resilient when a crisis hits.

But according to Thompson,  the project is not only the beginning of an initiative to improve safety inside government buildings, but a first step in how big data on mobile usage could be combined with other data to improve safety.

“If we take the info we have and we plot that on a map … we can work with the carriers to try to identify and eliminate dark spots in areas that we think would have an impact on public safety,” Thompson said.

Dead zone data stirs up carrier competition, innovation

Part of the preliminary process to define dead zones is a site survey where an apprentice engineer carries around a backpack with phones from each of the carriers, as well as a device that simultaneously records the signal’s strength, quality and where it comes from in each part of the building.

Interestingly, it isn’t only the larger buildings with several layers of walls that have the worst coverage. The newer, and more environmentally friendly LEED buildings also are also very resistant to tower signals.

The data OTCO collected also helps agencies determine which carriers have the best service in their specific buildings -- an insight that many agency CIOs didn’t expect as part of the initial analysis OTCO did to find the dead zones.

“What’s come as a surprise to many agencies is they have been using carrier A, but after looking at the data we collect from their buildings, they realize they should look at carrier B," Thompson said. "This becomes a really great tool for collaboration with the carriers -- which are usually on an annual contract-- and motivates them to not be in second place. So we look at this as the beginning of a big data initiative.”

And a key component of the project, Thompson said, is designing the system to make sure an agency isn’t tied to one carrier. “Our standards say if this program is going to fund some sort of solution, we want a solution that really fosters an open/competitive environment," he said.

That said, Thompson explained, OTCO works closely toward “mutual goals” with each agency’s preferred carrier to get the systems in place, and that often helps with the cost. “We look to these carriers to help defray the costs," he said. "For every dollar that the government spends, we’ve been able to bring in a dollar from the carriers.”

Big cell data partners with small cell technology

The government/carrier collaboration needed to eliminate dead zones is also fostering other ways to partner to improve service. “Several carriers have come out and said instead of using traditional towers, they want to use government assets to deploy their equipment on -- for example, some of the 70,000 light poles in the city.” Thompson said. It is a great way for carriers to expand service for improved safety and to avoid tree tower “eyesores,” he added.

“This is a big sea change in the way carriers need to collaborate with governments in general,” Thompson said. “This will affect not only how cell service is distributed in D.C. but in cities across the U.S.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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