Going green kills cellular signal; fixed mobile convergence revives it

After a green building project blocked cellular coverage, a U.K. college used fixed mobile convergence to enable roaming VoIP calls over Wi-Fi and cellular networks for users with dual-mode smartphones.

After spending $140 million on six new eco-friendly buildings, a very IT-unfriendly problem emerged for Hertford Regional College -- its green buildings blocked cellular signals. Unwilling to live with an unreachable staff, the IT team at this U.K. college solved its coverage blackout using fixed mobile convergence (FMC) to enable roaming Voice over IP (VoIP) for users with dual-mode smartphones.

"We have no mobile service inside the buildings at all. You could be standing outside and you would have five bars, and as soon as you walk inside these new buildings, you have no bars," said Daniel Hidlebaugh, director of network services at Hertford Regional College, which has its main campuses in Hertford and Ware, England, about 30 miles north of London. "It became impossible for us to reach some of our staff."

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It wasn't until after the buildings were completed last summer that Hidlebaugh and his team learned that the materials that made the six academic buildings conserve energy -- metal in the glass panes, polished granite walls and foil insulation -- also crippled communications. None of the 20,000 students or 1,500 staff could get cellular signals inside the new buildings.

Forgoing the cost savings of green buildings wasn't an option. British law recently mandated that public sector construction -- which includes higher education -- has to meet energy-efficiency standards, said Hidlebaugh, who recently presented the college's foray into fixed mobile convergence at the Gartner Wireless, Networking & Communications Summit in San Diego.

The lack of cellular coverage was more than an inconvenience for students and professors who couldn't make a phone call between classes, Hidlebaugh said. It became "impossible" to reach his staff, such as network engineers working on network infrastructure throughout a building. Security staff would also have no way of being notified if an incident occurred in another wing because the eco-friendly building materials blocked radio communications as well.

"There were a lot of man hours lost in us just chasing people around … and it became a very expensive [problem]," Hidlebaugh said.

Fixed mobile convergence proves its worth

The telephony and networking team at Hertford Regional didn't have much time after realizing the problem -- students would soon be spilling onto campus for the fall semester -- but fixed mobile convergence wasn't the first idea that dawned on them. Instead, they contacted the wireless carrier the college contracts with, T-Mobile.

"The only alternative that came to us at the time was for us to put a cell tower right in the middle of the college, and [our engineers] weren't even sure whether that would penetrate some of the new buildings," Hidlebaugh said. "The cost turned out to be something in the neighborhood of about £380,000.which roughly equates to $600,000 … but it was too much money for us."

The money savings are secondary to me.... If I can't get a hold of my staff, and I can't fix a problem, I'm in real trouble. This has been my godsend.
Daniel Hidlebaugh
Director of Network ServicesHertford Regional College

Hertford Regional looked at other options, including distributed antenna systems (DAS) and femtocells, but they either underperformed or were over budget, he said. When their systems integrator, Convergis Ltd., suggested a fixed mobile convergence solution, Hidlebaugh was skeptical.

"We get a lot of people who come to us and say, 'Hey, we've got the right product for you that's going to do the job. It's going to have all the bells and whistles and do everything you want,'" he said. "I love to use a phrase they use here in the States, which is, 'I'm from Missouri, so show me.'"

Accepting the challenge, Agito Networks showed him. The fixed mobile convergence startup from Santa Clara, Calif., took its RoamAnywhere platform on a test drive at Hertford Regional and stunned Hidlebaugh with the results.

"You'd be on T-Mobile, you'd walk into the building and it would hand off to Agito seamlessly," he said. "What really impressed us was that the quality on the Agito side, once we moved inside on our Wi-Fi, was better quality voice than we actually had with T-Mobile."

Fixed mobile convergence: 'Better than Skype?'

Agito's RoamAnywhere Mobility router ties into an IP private branch exchange (IP-PBX) via session initiation protocol (SIP) trunks, or it can connect to legacy TDM-based systems, using a SIP-to-TDM gateway, according to Pej Roshan, chief marketing officer at Agito. This enables the system to route VoIP calls through the IP-PBX, whether they originate or terminate over Wi-Fi, cellular or fixed line networks.

Since going live in November, the fixed mobile convergence platform has suffered only one malfunction, caused by a routing error during the first day of installation, Hidlebaugh said. No problems have surfaced since then.

"I don't need my desk phone anymore," he said. "My wireless [network] at home allows me to use Agito. Our [servers] create a VPN tunnel and bingo! I'm out on a local line…. It's like Skype, only better."

Over the next two years, Hidlebaugh's team will extend fixed mobile convergence capabilities from the first 100 critical users -- operations, security, IT and senior administration -- to the college's remaining staff and faculty. He is working with the student government to make it available for students -- paid for by an increase in tuition fees.

FMC solutions offer hard savings, increased productivity

The entire deployment – which included doubling the number of wireless access points (APs) from 300 to 600 for maximum VoIP coverage -- cost $24,850, Hidlebaugh said. Moving to a fixed mobile convergence platform has saved the college $3,000 monthly in voice plans for that 100-person pilot group since deployment, he added.

But the soft savings are priceless, he said. He estimated the 100 pilot users each recovered 30 minutes a week previously spent going outside to make phone calls or searching for colleagues.

"As a manager of network services, that's always my biggest issue -- I can't get a hold of engineers," Hidlebaugh said. "Even the money savings are secondary to me. Senior management, CFOs, love that kind of stuff. But for me, if I can't get a hold of my staff, and I can't fix a problem, I'm in real trouble. This has been my godsend."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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