Can You Hear Me Now . . . ?
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Beyond buildings, signals, and transmitters, other factors complicate the cellular environment at MIT.
• Multiple carriers: As noted, MIT does business with four cellular carriers: Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and AT&T. The FCC licenses different signal frequencies for each carrier, so each needs to install and operate its own transmitters. And each carrier requires a separate contract with MIT for use of additional equipment to improve its signal inside buildings. Dealing with four service providers, rather than having leverage with one, makes it that much harder for MIT to resolve coverage issues on campus.
• The moving target of technology: New smartphones and platforms – such as Apple’s iPhone, Google Android, and Cisco’s Mobility Services Engine – may change the cellular landscape. Many analysts expect a migration of services to a converged platform using the IP data network. For now, with technology in flux and budgets being squeezed, investments in cellular solutions need to be targeted and pragmatic.
• Limited resources: To date, no department or group at MIT has been given the mandate or resources (dollars, people, and real estate) to tackle the challenge of ensuring consistent cellular coverage across campus. Resources from cellular carriers have also been scarce.
IS&T has become the “go-to” group for telephone issues on campus, since IS&T provides the traditional and MITvoip phone services on campus. IS&T has heard a growing chorus of complaints from mobile device users on campus; it’s clearly a frustrating experience for everyone. While IS&T does not control cellular service on campus, it has taken several steps to try to improve the situation.
• IS&T continues to work with cellular carriers to install outdoor transmitters on campus. Since outside cell signals often permeate building interiors, new transmitters will have the biggest impact on improving cellular coverage on campus.
The transmitter for West Campus is high on the priority list, since Campus Police, the Athletics Department, and other MIT service groups are Sprint Nextel customers. MIT is now negotiating with Sprint Nextel to install a transmitter on the roof of the Johnson Athletic Center – a location that will also boost signals for MIT’s “dormitory row.” To improve its coverage for the center of campus, Sprint Nextel plans to install a pair of transmitters on E17 and E19.
Plans for a new AT&T transmitter on or near Building 37 are moving forward. This installation will improve coverage for all AT&T customers on campus, including iPhone users.
• To bring interior signals up to satisfactory levels, IS&T led the installation of a multi-carrier, in-building Distributed Antenna System (DAS) in the Stata Center, plus its extension to the Broad Institute and the new Ashdown Dormitory (NW35). This type of system uses a group of antennas to capture and relay cellular signals, though at a very high cost. For example, MIT paid almost $250,000 for the Stata DAS.
IS&T has also been involved in installing small, single-carrier, in-building Distributed Antenna Systems in E40, 46, and the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. However, setting up these systems in multiple locations throughout MIT is not a viable solution: in larger numbers, they affect negatively the networks of cellular carriers.
• IS&T has assembled a team to evaluate other promising technologies. Of particular interest are
– Dual-mode handsets. Devices such as T-Mobile’s Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) phones allow users to roam by providing a seamless transition between MIT’s wireless network and the carrier’s cellular network. Among its advantages, UMA technology addresses coverage issues in underground spaces.
– Fixed mobile convergence (FMC). This technology fuses WiFi, cellular, VoIP telephony, and location-awareness technology, and supports all cellular carriers. FMC technology provides MIT with the opportunity to leverage its campuswide WiFi network and recent investment in VoIP technology. This fall, in a joint collaborative effort with Agito Networks and Cisco, IS&T plans to conduct an evaluation of Agito’s mobility router and Cisco’s wireless services engine, using the recently upgraded MIT wireless network.
These technologies, along with new transmitters, hold the most promise for taming MIT’s cellular challenges. Even so, to make the best use of new solutions, it will be important for individuals to choose carriers and mobile devices that are in line with MIT's recommendations.
With mobile devices so central to today’s communications, it’s important that the Institute throw its weight behind improving cellular coverage. It will take vision, resources, and a spirit of collaboration to bring strong signals to all corners of campus.
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