BlackBerrys were silent inside the walls of K&L Gates, a Washington DC law firm that was forced to build offices three stories underground to comply with the city's height requirements.
But it wasn't just the subterranean spaces -- nestled beneath two floors of a parking garage -- that suffered. The building materials and congestion in the city made it virtually impossible to catch a wireless signal anywhere in the 200,000-square-foot building, aside from having to press up against a window.
"It was pitiful, unless you [were] right next to the window," said Rodney Carson, director of administration for K&L Gates.
But the firm needed wireless services, not only to bring BlackBerrys back to life inside its walls but also so that standard cell phones could reach the outside world.
Luckily, the building was erected from scratch, and a survey of the structure before the work was completed uncovered the terrible signal on the upper floors and the nonexistent signal underground.
"We knew before we ever began remodeling the space that we would have a problem with cellular and BlackBerry coverage in the underground offices," Carson said. "When we did a site survey, we also found that the whole building had poor coverage -- even at the windows, you couldn't get a signal in many places."
Carson said he set out on a quest to find "what's out there to help us resolve our wireless issues."
To address the wireless inconsistencies, Carson called in Richard Glasgow, CEO of Glasgow Group, a DC-based telecommunications and network consulting firm that specialises in communications infrastructure, telephony systems and datacentre technologies. Glasgow said he recommended the LGC Wireless InterReach Unison system.
"Anything below ground, it's going to be fairly impossible to get a radio signal," Spindler said. "When you're trying to permeate the earth with radio signals, it's just not going to happen for you."
Glasgow ran more site surveys and designed an antenna placement model, and LGC deployed the system's cabling along with 24 remote antennas during the main construction work. Three Unison hubs were then added in the building's communications center to drive the antennas. When K&L Gates moved into the space in January 2006, the last hurdle was getting the carriers -- T-Mobile and Verizon -- on board.
After a short time, T-Mobile deployed a mini base station in K&L Gates' equipment room and linked it to its network via a T-1 line. By April 2006, BlackBerry service was up and running, providing coverage for the nearly 300 BlackBerry 7290 users in the D.C. office. The BlackBerrys are used to deliver voice, email, calendaring and Web browsing services under the corporate service plan.
According to Carson, once BlackBerry service blinked back from the brink of oblivion, cheers of joy filled the building.
"When you move from an environment where you're used to having coverage into one where you don't have it, it's a pretty big letdown," he said. "So they were ecstatic to get it back."
LGC's Spindler called BlackBerry a "very, very addictive and sticky application," adding that it's always difficult for users to go without them once they've grown attached.
With BlackBerry back in action, the next step was to get traditional cellular service for employees using Verizon. While K&L Gates doesn't have a corporate plan for voice cellular users, Carson estimates that roughly 70% of employees in the D.C. office use Verizon service that they pay for themselves. After negotiations, Verizon deployed a rooftop antenna and repeater system earlier this year, and voice coverage went live in April.
With coverage now prevalent throughout the building, and the Unison system supporting T-Mobile's 1900 MHz frequency and Verizon's 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequencies, the days of no service are long gone, Carson said -- so much so, that it's hardly even a memory.
"It's working smoothly everywhere in the building, so we don't even think about it anymore," he said.
What gave K&L Gates an edge, Carson said, was identifying the problem during construction. Being able to contact LGC to build out the infrastructure during that transition allowed the wiring for the main network to be installed at the same time as the multi-carrier wireless system, meaning minimal disruption.
Adding the sophisticated solution during construction also saved money because new wiring didn't have to be added after the fact.
"From our perspective, it was an easy solution to be able to wire it all at the same time," Carson said. "A lot of the infrastructure needed to run this went in smooth and easy. It's the perfect time to do it when you're doing construction."
Glasgow agreed: "You can retrofit these systems, but it complicates the world."
He noted that the benefits for K&L Gates, while many, really boil down to coverage and the ability to use the cellular network as a backup disaster-recovery system. Carson agreed, noting how dangerous it could be to have employees working underground with little access to external communication.
"The benefit is strictly coverage," Glasgow said. "Especially since cell phones have become more and more important. If you got coverage in that building before, you lucked out. To go into a place and not have that coverage is unacceptable."
This was first published in July 2007