By Andrew Maier
We’ve long since passed the time when cellular connectivity was just a nice perk. In today’s world, it’s an absolute necessity — especially on school campuses, where cutting-edge technology plays a critical role in both education and student recruitment.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicated that 92 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they own a smartphone, and 51 percent of the public owns a tablet computer. The problem is, the cellular networks that support these devices were primarily designed for voice coverage.
As we’ve shifted toward greater data usage, these now-overloaded networks struggle to keep up. This is especially true in areas with dense populations such as college campuses. On campus, an unreliable network is frustrating at best. At worst, it’s an actual impediment to learning if students can’t study, research, collaborate or communicate. Same goes for faculty.
The competitive nature of higher education recruitment and retention requires that school construction projects prioritize reliable wireless connectivity. By considering it at the outset, you can make connectivity a standard amenity, not a constant inconvenience.
3 Ways to Account for Connectivity During Construction
Retrofits will always be more expensive and time-consuming than a solution that’s integrated while the project is still being designed. Minimize issues down the line by considering these three things during the planning and construction phase:
1. Don’t assume cellular coverage will be adequate.
If you rarely have issues connecting to your email server at home or pulling up webpages on your phone at work, it’s easy to take wireless connectivity for granted. But when it comes to new campus construction, carrier service isn’t guaranteed. Depending on where your school is located, cell coverage can vary greatly.
Rural locations can suffer from coverage gaps, leading to connectivity issues. And though urban settings might offer better access to wireless coverage, population density can take a serious toll. This is also true on larger campuses. When you have 40,000 undergraduates on their smartphones, tablets and laptops, all trying to access the internet for school research or social activities, you’re bound to get cellular gridlock.
It’s also worth thinking about how to keep connectivity seamless from one facility to the next. The school might even have indoor and outdoor spaces that require a more customized solution. And in some cases, you’ll have to ensure that your new network will be compatible with an old one.
2. Consider the building materials you’re using.
Sometimes, it’s the building itself that’s the culprit. That’s why it’s essential to discuss potential building material alternatives with your architects early on. Higher education facilities can be constructed using materials such as metal, aluminum and concrete, all of which have high potential to block cellular signals.
For universities seeking LEED certification or those that are simply trying to incorporate “greener” practices into new construction projects, eco-friendly materials can also hamper connectivity.
One of the most common green building materials used is low-emissivity glass, or “low-e glass.” This type of glass is coated with a special material that blocks heat waves to reduce energy usage — but guess what else it blocks? Yup, cell signals. As green buildings are constructed, it is imperative to not only design a building so that it abides by the green mentality, but to also ensure reliable and strong cell coverage throughout the building.
3. Lay a strong foundation for the future.
New campus facilities represent a significant investment, so it doesn’t pay to be shortsighted. By installing adequate infrastructure for wireless connectivity during construction, you’ll spend at least 30 percent less than you would on a retrofit solution.
Rather than strictly planning for the technology that’s needed now, you should also allow for future flexibility. It’s important to consider ways in which the network will be able to evolve along with the school’s requirements.
For example, many schools are currently in the process of moving to the cloud, and others have already started to integrate automated control processes and other “smart building” technologies. Even if this isn’t functionality your school needs now, it might be something that’s desired down the road.
To read the entire article, check out the March/April issue of School Construction News.
Andrew Maier is president at Burr Ridge, Ill.-headquartered WIN, a leader in DAS solution development for mid- to high-rise buildings.