Rising Expectations

Technological innovations to win consumer satisfaction

Technological Innovations to Win Consumer Satisfaction

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the 2013 racing season

Sometimes emerging new technologies take commercial property owners and developers by surprise. Take the New York Life Insurance Co., which completed a new building in Lower Manhattan in the spring of 1870. Like most office buildings of the era, it was short by later standards—at five stories—because it had no elevators. Elevator technology was still in its early stages, but it was advancing rapidly, as New York Life found out.

“The company had scarcely occupied (the building) three months when it was found necessary, in order to rent the upper floors, to put in an elevator—a means of conveyance which had come into fashion since the building was begun,” a company history noted in the 1890s.

In our time, the evolution of commercial property technology might not be so dramatic, but it is still evolving. Only 20 years ago, who would have imagined a revenue stream for building owners from leasing the property’s highest reaches—previously unproductive space—for cell phone towers? Who would have imagined that gigabytes of information would be flowing routinely through commercial property infrastructure on any given business day?

“Considering the pace of technological change, it’s hard to keep up,” said Ira Bey, business development manager at Chicago-based Qypsys, which specializes in installing voice, data and video services in buildings and on multi-building campuses. “The technology changes quickly, but it isn’t the only thing that does. What also changes without much warning is what tenants and customers expect from a building.”

One emerging technology for commercial properties today is distributed antenna systems (DAS), a communications technology that has applications in various kinds of properties because it can support a wide range of applications (Wi-Fi, cell phones, mobile radios and pagers) and frequency ranges. The technology can be useful for properties that are spread out, such as public venues. Retail properties and medical office buildings might also benefit from DAS, since they are notorious for the inconsistency with which electronic signals can pass through their space, retail because of the complexities of internal walls and other surfaces, medical offices because of interference by equipment that is electro-magnetically noisy.

Wireless communication is becoming such an essential part of everyday living that people will soon think twice about going anywhere where they are not able to connect instantly. “Access to Wi-Fi is getting to be a big issue in retail properties, since people now routinely shop with cell phones and apps,” said Bey. “In some malls, you have to walk around to get your phone to work, and individual stores have spotty access. That dog isn’t going to hunt in the future, as visitors and customers use and demand to use their smartphones everywhere and in all situations.”

At its heart, DAS is a group of lower-power antennas separated in space to cover the same area as a single, higher-power antenna using less power and—more important—with more reliability. The technology is not that new, according to Bey, but commercial properties have been slow to adopt it.

Recently, American Tower Corp. finished deploying a DAS network at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the 2013 racing season. The network will facilitate rising wireless communication and data activity throughout the 480-acre complex. This particular DAS is extensive, with several hundred antennas, and capable of hosting multiple carriers. It also features dedicated backup power and an electrical distribution system that allows for multiple remote generators to supply power to transmission equipment installed throughout the grandstands.

In Chicago, AT&T recently installed a 4G LTE-capable DAS at Navy Pier. The retail and entertainment venue is spread out across about 50 acres on a pier jutting into Lake Michigan. The new DAS installation consists of strategically placed antennas to distribute AT&T’s wireless network coverage throughout the pier, which provides for more efficient management of wireless capacity in heavily trafficked areas. Visitors “routinely use their electronic devices to quickly share their favorite Navy Pier memories with friends and family,” said Nick Shields, director of external communications. Navy Pier itself likes to promote the image sharing as a kind of virtual word-of-mouth advertising.

LAN-ding Fiber
Another up-and-coming commercial real estate technology is passive optical local-area-network systems. The technology received a splash of attention in February when an enormous passive optical LAN began operations at Sandia National Laboratories in California. The network pulled together 265 buildings and 13,000 computer network ports and brought high-speed communication to some of the labs’ most remote technical areas for the first time. It will save an estimated $20 million over five years through energy reductions—Sandia expects to reduce energy costs by 65 percent once the network is fully operational—and by not having to buy replacement equipment.

Installing a passive optical LAN involves replacing conventional copper LAN with fiber optics, which puts phones, computers, wireless and security in a single network cable. That eliminates a large number of power-consuming switches and routers, and makes the network simpler to operate and cheaper to install. And since it requires less space, energy and maintenance costs go down. For example, where a conventional LAN serving 900 customers requires a space the size of three double ovens, an optical network serving 8,000 requires roughly microwave oven-size space.

There is nothing new about fiber optics, but its adoption for use in local-area networks has been some time in coming, waiting for improvements in the technology and reductions in cost. Sandia’s plan for putting in passive optical LAN, for instance, did not happen overnight: The labs started converting from copper in the 1980s, first installing then-emerging fiber optics in a single building and bumping that facility to megabit speeds. After years of planning, Sandia completed a formal network plan in late 2008. It sought competitive bids the following year, eventually selecting Tellabs of Naperville, Ill., as the equipment vendor.

“As we research and deploy new technologies, our main objectives are to enable the labs’ mission, decrease life-cycle costs, and if possible reduce our footprint on the environment,” said Sandia manager Jeremy Banks. “With the deployment of passive optical networks, we have been able to meet and exceed all of these objectives.”

Most commercial properties will not need the extensive passive optical LAN set-up that Sandia employs, but according to Qypsys’ Bey, the technology is becoming more cost effective for other kinds of properties. Last year, for example, Williamsburg Landing, a continuing-care retirement community in Williamsburg, Va., installed the set-up. The complex includes a large number of disparate facilities on 137 acres along College Creek. The passive optical LAN project was completed through a partnership between Qypsys, Williamsburg Landing and Healthsense, a technology company specializing in designs to increase independence for older adults. The new system replaced existing LAN connections with a single high-capacity fiber-optic cable designed to connect the end user directly to the data center.

“Passive optical LAN fits a niche,” said Bey. “And it has the benefit of being more eco-friendly. I expect it to become more common in the years ahead, as the industry hears about its advantages.”