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Something in the air: The new utility, Wi-Fi informs commercial real estate needs

Businesses would never think of building a new structure without plumbing or electricity, but a third utility has come into play in the last couple of years, and that’s connectivity: the infrastructure necessary for adequate cell phone service and wireless internet.

“The amount of use and number of users has rapidly increased in the past two years, so a lot of places are making the leap from ‘nice-to-have’ to ‘need-to-have,’” said Bob Hagarman, director of wireless business development at Business Information Group in York.

Hagarman said many companies are adding infrastructure to handle the coverage their employees need in order to have a good user experience on the devices they use to do their jobs. “The internet and your cell phone are the things you use hardest besides the lights and water,” he said.

Even networks installed just a few years ago may struggle to keep up with the demand and continue to provide the level of service businesses expect.

Beyond the building

Newer buildings are being constructed with conduits for fiber-optic and coaxial cables, openfloor plans, and walls constructed so as not to limit the reach of wireless internet systems.

Offices in older buildings may need to install transmitters or boosters to help the signal get through plaster walls.

Hagarman said his company–which designs, installs and manages wireless business systems–uses software that produces heat maps to show how a network will propagate throughout a building.

“You want to think of the signal like water: if it finds a hole, it will go through,” he said. “You get a very accurate picture of how it dissipates so you don’t get dead zones.”

Even though connectivity and signal strength are matters of real estate, they transcend the building in their effect on employee morale, creativity and collaboration by enabling the kind of flexibility that defines contemporary work and workspaces.

Mike Lorelli, senior vice president of commercial asset management for High Associates Ltd. in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County, agreed that adequate cell phone coverage and wireless internet are must-have items for his clients.

“Wi-Fi is almost as important as a hardwired network,” said Lorelli. “People are working more independently or collaboratively in groups on wireless devices or tablets, so there are fewer offices and cubicles.”

The ability to work remotely, in a common area or at a picnic table outdoors, is important for younger employees and helps break up the work day while maintaining productivity.

Change still coming

Lorelli said there has been a real push on the part of cell phone carriers to provide micro towers as well as regular cell phone towers to improve coverage in recent months.

“Especially in the markets we’re in, here in Harrisburg and Lancaster, it’s difficult to get towers approved because of concerns over aesthetics,” he said. The smaller micro towers can attach to lamp posts in parking lots and serve a smaller geographic area, but can improve service for businesses nearby.

Art Campbell, president of Campbell Commercial Real Estate in Lemoyne, said some municipalities are pushing to ensure that emergency responders have adequate cell phone coverage in buildings so they can connect to county emergency services if necessary, but that has yet to become standard in Pennsylvania as it has in states such as New York, California and Delaware.

“It’s a little harder here because we’re a commonwealth with state 

county, township and borough governments,” he said. “We have four layers of politics.”

Campbell said some businesses are asking for dual connections to phone and internet service so they won’t have downtime should a power outage occur. “That seems to be one of the most important things,” he said, “especially for insurance companies.”

Laura Martin, broker and owner at Latus Commercial Realty in Hampden Township, Cumberland County, said that with high-speed internet, VoIP — or Voice over Internet Protocol — is becoming more common in the workplace, with businesses using hardware and software that allow them to use the internet for phone calls.

“Fax machines have also pretty much gone by the wayside, too, because you can scan and email something instead,” she said. “The internet is much more important than a phone line anymore. The technology is just changing so quickly.”

Get smart

Hagarman said he sees internet capabilities and speed becoming even more important in years to come as the “internet of things” expands and devices within a building all talk with each other wirelessly.

“There are a lot of smart building initiatives where the lights turn on and off and temperatures adjust automatically through sensors tied together that connect back to a central point,” he said. “But when you put in all those sensors, it’s going to consume bandwidth.”

That, in turn, means companies are going to have to plan to spend a bigger part of their building or operating budgets on the hardware and software necessary to support such technology.

“It costs more to build the networks of today than it did five years ago, and that’s where a lot of businesses struggle,” said Hagarman. “They have to start thinking about it as a utility. If you cut corners, well, you can’t wish a network to work. It’s either built properly or improperly.”

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