Networks of the Future

How to Evaluate and pay for a DAS System

Before the mobile revolution, it would have seemed like futuristic overkill to think that every employee within a utility or substation would have an individual laptop, phone or tablet, each requiring unfailing internet access.

Now, the idea of working without constant connectivity to email, instant messaging tools, search engines, applications and software programs on multiple devices is unfathomable, especially for employees in mission-critical fields like power management.

In addition, utility communications networks must enable a proliferation of smart grid devices and the Internet of Things (IoT), creating an increasing demand for communications capacity and coverage. Utilities must deploy systems deep into their transmission and distribution infrastructure to support supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and distribution automation (DA) systems that promote electric service reliability.

These new realities mean that utilities require constant connectivity to effectively manage all people, infrastructure and assets within their service territories or substations. It’s no longer an option to have spotty service, and this trend will continue. Utilities must think seriously about building on-site wireless networks that work both now and in the future.

A distributed antenna system (DAS) can both solve for a utility’s current needs as well as position it to take advantage of the tomorrow’s technologies-and there are several key components of a future-ready DAS platform.

Eight Questions to Ask of a DAS System

To help ensure a future-ready system, utilities should ask:

  1. Does the system support adding carriers and frequency bands without the need for additional hardware or expensive upgrades?
  2. How are the people in the buildings and facilities communicating, and which applications and technologies are needed to support those preferences?
  3. What is the expectation regarding connectivity for the next generation of employees, and what are the requirements to meet those expectations?
  4. Are there emerging technologies within the energy sector, like IoT, machine-to- machine (m2M) communications and 5G cellular, that need stable and reliable cellular connectivity?
  5. Is it full spectrum, so it can access all the most utilized cellular and public safety signals as well as all frequencies available between 150 MHz and 2700 MHz?
  6. Is it fully fiber-based, instead of cable-based or a hybrid of cable and fiber, to keep costs lower and installation time to a minimum?
  7. How much hardware needs to be installed? Is it complicated? Are there multiple components to install that will add to installation time and costs?
  8. Is it multi-carrier-does it give access to the entire employee base, no matter what carrier they use?

There are other considerations to choosing a DAS system, including cost. Because of budget considerations, it’s important for utilities to get the best bang for their buck with any investment. With a DAS system, the buck doesn’t stop just at hardware setup and installation; total cost of ownership must be considered.

To take a today-and-tomorrow approach to an investment in a DAS system, utilities should consider the three primary factors that account for total cost of ownership (TCO).

TCO Factor No. 1: Cable and ancillary Hardware Cost

A utility might be considering a system that claims to use fiber cabling, but that might not necessarily mean the system is fiber-based. Many systems use fiber at some point, but most are hybrid fiber and coaxial cable.

A hybrid system is more difficult to install, more intrusive to the facility where it is being installed, and more expensive. It uses fiber cabling is the backbone, but the coaxial cabling goes out to the antennas (the equipment that distributes the now-amplified cellular signal to be consumed by mobile devices).

Depending on how the system is engineered, antenna points can be hard to access with coaxial cabling. Because heavier coaxial cabling is difficult to manipulate, more cable is necessary, resulting in additional costs that might not have been figured into the initial price.

In addition to cabling, the system may require ancillary equipment that wasn’t accounted for in the initial hardware estimate, whether it’s special structure-specific hardware or additional antennas due to the way the structure is configured.

The optimal DAS system uses fiber cabling throughout the system all the way to the antennas. In addition, in many situations, an all-fiber DAS system can use a structure’s existing fiber infrastructure.

TCO Factor No. 2: Installation Cost

Coaxial cable is not as flexible as fiber cabling, which may mean longer runs are needed to get from point A to point B. Longer runs require more manhours to install. In addition, a team of people will likely need to access ceilings, which adds even more installation time.

This means that not only is the cable itself more expensive than fiber, but the installation will cost more as well. With employees and equipment being displaced or out of commission while teams of installers work in the ceiling, utilities also must add lost productivity into the total cost. In addition, utilities will need to devote time and resources to ensure power supply remains up and running while installers are getting equipment in place.

TCO Factor No. 3: Cost to Meet Future Connectivity Needs

TCO factors Nos. 1 and 2 focus on a system that meets the connectivity needs of a business today. But what about the future-one or two years in the future, or more?

Utilities sometimes hope to push off big decisions about and investments in technologies to see if something better comes along, or because they are concerned about investing in something that quickly becomes obsolete. These are legitimate concerns.

With the industry already deep into 5G network development, however, utilities will need to add new frequencies to expand their current networks’ capacities and ensure they are future-ready.

Not every utility has the resources for the capital outlay required to purchase an on-site wireless platform, but the immediate need for improved indoor cellular connectivity is a business concern that cannot be ignored. This situation now has a solution: cellular as a service (CaaS).

A New Business Model for On-Site Connectivity

Outsourcing technology is an established practice-think of cloud storage, or data visualization or software as a service (SaaS) apps from companies like Microsoft. Many utilities pay licensing fees for the rights to use these programs, and CaaS extends the same business model to the on-site wireless space.

Larger utilities may prefer to own their own wireless infrastructure, and can afford that kind of capital outlay, as well as IT staff who are radio frequency experts and can manage the wireless in-house. For small, rural or mid-sized utilities, however, either those expenses aren’t options, or they don’t want to get that involved with a wireless system. They want a simple mobile solution that works.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t require better on-site cellular connectivity now, or want to be able to accommodate future technologies. With a CaaS option, improved connectivity becomes an operational expense, just like for the utility’s customers when they pay the electric bill every month. This removes the concerns about high upfront costs, as well as recurring downstream costs due to system changes and additions.

With CaaS, DAS solutions can be had on a monthly or per-square-foot basis, including deployment and on-going system monitoring and maintenance. Any new frequency or operator additions on the system or additional coverage areas would not involve any capital outlays from the utility, as they would be covered as part of the service.

This arrangement allows a utility to depend on a reliable third party to manage the on-site wireless. The system is supported by industry-accepted service-level agreements as part of the ongoing monitoring of the solution, ensuring an expected level of service every day.

CaaS creates an alternative business model that will allow enterprises to check every box on their on-site DAS wireless system wish list, getting a best-in-class system by paying for it with an operational expenditure model, not a capital expenditure model.

Preparing for the Future

Not all DAS systems are created equal, and it’s critical for utilities’ investments to pay off for years to come. With careful consideration of TCO and the future-readiness of a selected system, a company will be well positioned to not only solve current connectivity needs, but also take advantage of tomorrow’s technologies.

In addition, the new CaaS model can help utilities invest in a best-in-class DAS system by treating it as an operational expense instead of a large capital outlay, giving them a broader range of solution options and allowing them to make decisions today that get them ready for the future.

Scott Willis has spent more than 30 years in the telecommunications industry. Before joining Zinwave he was executive vice president, chief sales and marketing executive at Goodman Networks. Scott has also held senior executive roles at Ericsson, Nokia, BellSouth, Sprint and several smaller global corporations in the communications field. Scott graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in finance and received his MBA from Wake Forest University.

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