AT&T, Verizon and others ride the DAS wave

ExteNet DAS by NY NY

ExteNet DAS (at left, next to street light) deployed throughout Las Vegas.

The market for distributed antenna systems (DAS) is a curious one, marked by numerous instances of competition, cooperation and "coopetition" between mobile operators and third-party DAS operators. There appears to be room for multiple players as the market for DAS deployments continues to be driven by overall increasing mobile data usage, growing in-building coverage requirements and a greater need for special event coverage and capacity. 

According to a recent forecast from SNS Research, the market for DAS infrastructure gear will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 11 percent over the next five years and account for nearly $4 billion in revenue.

There are three main types of ownership scenarios for DAS: Those deployed by carriers; those deployed by neutral-host third-party providers; and those deployed by building owners and managers. Carriers and neutral-host third parties have interesting relationships in that they may at times compete to get a contract with a venue while other times the carriers turn to the neutral hosts to roll out DAS at a venue.

Tracy Ford, PCIA HetNet forum

Ford (Image source: PCIA)

"All of those business models work right now because each one is a custom solution, each one depends on the building, the venue, the operator interest, and all of these different pieces of the puzzle have to fall into place," said Tracy Ford, director of PCIA's HetNet Forum.

"Because the DAS market is still fairly young, not one business model has been decided upon," she said.

DAS technology is far from the only solution available for enhancing wireless service at a particular venue. Service providers can also look to distributed base-stations/remote radio heads (RRHs) or small cells to enhance wireless coverage and capacity.

Much of the choice comes down to a tradeoff between cost, functionality, flexibility, existing infrastructure and scalability. The initial cost of small cells and remote radio heads might be less than that of the DAS equipment, said Tormod Larsen, CTO of third-party service provider ExteNet.

"However, complexity arises with multi-carrier, multi-frequency and multi-technology network architectures where the TCO (total cost of ownership) analysis may deliver a different result. Other factors like network scalability and evolution can also have dramatic impact, and opinions could vary," said ExteNet Marketing Director Manish Matta.

Chad Townes, AT&T

Townes (Image source: AT&T)

Comparing DAS to small cells, the latter are a more economical solution in smaller venues because the individual units are lower cost and have capacity embedded right in the antennas, said Chad Townes, vice president of AT&T's (NYSE:T) Antenna Solutions Group.

"You don't really have a fixed cost component. You're mostly just dealing with the variable cost. If you need more coverage or capacity, you add more cells," he said.

"With DAS, you have a fixed cost in the DAS head-end and antenna system, but you're able to leverage the capacity of your base station units over the greater area. So as you get into larger and larger buildings, the DAS becomes more economical because you can leverage the cost of that head-end over more usable space, more subscribers," he said.

DAS can be deployed indoors or outdoors, but the needs driving those types of deployments vary. In general, outdoor DAS are generally purpose built for the needs of a single operator while DAS deployed indoors can be designed for one or multiple carriers.

Christos Karmis, Mobilitie

Karmis (Image source: Mobilitie)

An outdoor DAS built for a particular operator "will have a different nature in terms of utilization for the other carriers" because the carriers' individual needs for an outdoor DAS network will be different depending upon each of their macro networks' footprint in the area. "One carrier may have issues due to its spectrum holdings that are much different from another carrier's issues," said Christos Karmis, president of Mobilitie, a third-party service provider.

"It's much more carrier-specific in the outdoor DAS space than in the indoor, or venue, DAS. Due to sheer capacity all of the carriers need to be at those indoor locations," he added. The indoor space has high demand, Karmis said, "because every carrier has the same problems at the same locations."

Ford noted that because vertical target market end users, such as those in hospitality and corporate real estate, want to avoid having antenna farms in their buildings, when it comes to indoor deployments there is more demand for multi-carrier DAS rather than having one operator on a DAS, regardless of who owns it.

Hitting the marquee venues

DAS have been taking center stage lately thanks to in large part to massive deployments at sports venues, with mobile operators and third-party DAS service providers both getting in on the action.

AT&T Antenna Systems mobile DAS

AT&T set up a mobile DAS at a June PGA event.

ExteNet drew considerable attention earlier this year when it signed AT&T, Sprint (NYSE:S), Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and MetroPCS--now owned by T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS)--to its neutral-host DAS at the Barclays Center sports and entertainment venue in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Also this year, Mobilitie installed a DAS at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Ky., home to the Kentucky Derby. Though the DAS is open to multiple carriers, AT&T became the first tenant, and Mobilitie worked closely with AT&T's Antenna Solutions Group to ensure the network would meet the needs of AT&T's customers. More recently, Mobilitie was chosen to deploy a neutral-host DAS at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., home of the Anaheim Ducks NHL team.

AT&T made news itself in 2009 with its DAS deployment at Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. In July of this year, the facility was renamed AT&T Stadium.

"Verizon has ramped up DAS deployments in major high-profile venues and is the lead carrier on many neutral-host DAS systems nationwide.  We often lease space on these DAS systems to other carriers," said company spokesman Tom Pica.

The next Super Bowl in February 2014 will be played at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, where Verizon is building a DAS as well as a Wi-Fi network. The operator, which holds the neutral-host rights, will apparently have exclusive use of the deployment during Super Bowl XLVIII. "Other providers had the opportunity to participate but did not express interest in time to participate," said Pica.

Though mobile carriers contend they offer neutral hosting for many DAS networks they deploy, third-party DAS providers and other observers often argue it must be challenging for an operator to build a DAS for itself and then dedicate time and cash to satisfying rivals that lease space on the system.

But Townes said AT&T will customize its neutral-host DAS deployments "to meet the needs of any other carriers that come on board."

He noted AT&T builds out a neutral-host DAS "minimize our cost structure so we can get into as many locations as possible," while third-party providers build out DAS specifically to make a profit off of the DAS lessees.  

"We're predominantly building the network because we have a need to service our customers, and then we take the approach of neutral-hosting it because these systems are not cheap. By doing that, we share the cost with the other providers that want to join, which enables us to stretch our capital dollar and do more buildings and more locations," Townes added.

A lot of life left in DAS

For the near term, competition and cooperation between third-party DAS providers and carriers will likely continue given the huge demand for improved wireless infrastructure everywhere, Karmis said.

He suggested the DAS industry's next phase will involve a fundamental shift away from high-profile venues such as football stadiums and more toward high-rise office buildings and vertical industries, such as hospitals and educational institutions, that require better wireless infrastructure.

That is already happening, as evidenced by this month's announcement from AT&T, which said it had deployed a new DAS at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Also, many DAS deployments are being accompanied by simultaneous Wi-Fi deployments, a trend that is likely to continue though the decision to deploy Wi-Fi alongside DAS depends upon the venue.

While many indoor locations already have Wi-Fi installed, there can be opportunities for a second Wi-Fi network to be deployed for public use. Further, it is becoming increasingly common to deploy public Wi-Fi along with DAS in stadiums. "It's a great way to provide additional offload capacity beyond just the DAS network alone or enable teams to ensure their fans can run the latest high bandwidth game day experience applications," Karmis said.

Verizon's Pica echoed those thoughts, noting the operator's DAS deployments generally do not include Wi-Fi deployments at the same venue except in large venues such as major stadiums "where events that inspire high traffic usage among attendees are common."

It remains to be seen what impact small cell rollouts might have on DAS deployments, with much riding on technological advances in small cells that could make them even more competitive with DAS.

"From AT&T's perspective, we absolutely want to see a neutral host-capable multi-standard small cell with multiple frequency bands. If that were to happen, in and of itself, you're going to create the ability to care for multiple carriers because there are different carriers on different frequency bands in each particular market," Townes said.

"The least amount of money we can spend to get into buildings and share the infrastructure, the more facilities we're going to collectively be able to cover and provide a better wireless experience for everybody," he added.

Yet DAS will likely continue to be a tool in operators and third-party service providers' tool kits for a long time to come.  "There is no one silver bullet for network quality and performance," Pica said.

AT&T, Verizon and others ride the DAS wave
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