Distributed antenna systems: From niche to necessity

Over the past few years, distributed antenna systems have quietly emerged as a powerful tool for wireless carriers looking to bolster their coverage and boost their capacity--key concerns in the age of smartphones and 3G.

DAS on lightpole in Southern CaliforniaDAS technologies can be used for indoor locations--mainly to boost signal coverage in large buildings and at stadiums and shopping malls--as well as for outdoor purposes. Essentially, DAS is a collection of small antennas spread over a specific geographic area and connected by fiber back to a central location or power source, usually a base station.

The benefits of DAS are two-fold: The technology allows carriers to fill in coverage gaps and dead spots in their macro network; and, by breaking down the macro cell site into smaller pieces, it helps add much-needed capacity to operators' networks.

"It's used to fill in gaps where the big cells may not reach, but going forward it will probably replace a lot of big cells in a lot of situations where they need high capacity," said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat. "It's getting to be more about capacity."

A growing market

"Up until the last couple of years, it had been a niche market," said Dave Cutrer, the CEO of NextG, an outdoor DAS provider. "Carriers would use it solve specific problems."

DAS on lightpole NextGThe technology behind DAS is not new, and carriers have been using it for years. But lately, due to subscribers' skyrocketing mobile data demands, operators have turned to DAS as a much-needed boost to capacity.

Nogee said today there are eight or nine major players in the DAS market, including ADC, NextG, Newpath Networks and larger tower companies such as American Tower and Crown Castle. They're all trying to meet the needs of carriers that want to get their signal closer to where users actually are, he said.

PCIA's Connie Durcsak said DAS is primarily used as a surgical solution to enhance coverage in a specific area. But engineering the network to enhance capacity is becoming just as important. "It has really evolved from a deployment need to an engineering need," said Durcsak, who is executive director of the DAS Forum within PCIA, a wireless infrastructure industry trade group.

The DAS market is still nascent, and there are no precise figures on how large it is. Durcsak said PCIA does not keep track of exact figures because it's difficult to track the differences between indoor and outdoor DAS systems. However, she added that the industry has "probably evolved exponentially."

Cutrer of NextG said the outdoor DAS market is probably a $500 million market. Tony Lefebvre, ADC's director of product management for outdoor DAS products, said the market is probably between $400 million and $450 million for outdoor DAS...Continued

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