When Roger Sanchez attended the Business Marketing Association Conference in Chicago last summer, the topic of conversation wasn’t the keynote speaker or discussion panels. All anyone could talk about was the fact that the venue’s internet kept crashing. No one could understand how a well-to-do hotel could have such a poor Wi-Fi service.
Everyone except Sanchez, that is.
“I had worked on the Sheraton, building the building back in 1992, so I was very familiar with it and I knew they didn’t have a distributed antenna system,” he says.
A good distributed antenna system, or DAS, is a series of small antennas placed throughout a building or outside along a utility line that provide stronger, more reliable internet coverage over a concentrated area. Not only does a DAS enhance wireless reception, but a single system can transmit data to all major wireless carriers.
Today, DAS is becoming a necessity for many venues, and Sanchez’s company is one of the few able to prepare these venues for this new age of internet access.
The coevolution of a company and IT
Sanchez is the president and operations manager of RLS-CMC Inc., a construction company that installs indoor and outdoor distributed antenna systems for iconic casinos on the Las Vegas strip, hotel chains and temporary outdoor systems for marathons.
When Sanchez first incorporated the company in 2002, he had no intention of building a better internet. In fact, the technology RLS-CMC Inc. now installs didn’t exist.
RLS-CMC Inc. started as an electrical engineering and construction consultant for the high rise industry of Chicago. “We worked on very big projects, but as you know, around 2007, the business in that industry went away,” due to the economic recession, says Sanchez. For the next year, the company kept busy doing government work. Earlier in 2007, RLS-CMC Inc. was approached by a contact from Commonwealth Edison, the largest utility company in Illinois, to help a start-up neutral host wireless company gain access to Chicago’s utility poles and existing infrastructure.
That was the beginning of outdoor DAS, says Sanchez. “Basically, the company wanted to install mini cell towers every half a mile along the utility line in the northern suburbs of Chicago,” he says. But since the neutral host company had no background building utilities in Chicago, it needed the help of RLS-CMC Inc. to make sure the company adhered to the utility’s rules and regulations.
Opportunities in internet expansion
At the time, this neutral host company was one of the few to see great promise in DAS. “They were basically real estate companies that wanted to provide towers and networks that they can then lease to the big four: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint,” says Sanchez. Instead of a town or a business installing four separate towers to accommodate each service provider, a neutral host company would provide a lease to each of these four service providers. Then the neutral host company would hire a construction company, like RLS-CMC Inc., to construct the actual system.
After completing its first project in Chicago, RLS-CMC Inc. continued to install outdoor DAS for other neutral host providers in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Texas and California.
As the internet systems grew more popular, the company quickly gained recognition for this type of work and began to install indoor system, not just outdoor.
Sports arenas became one of the first businesses to understand the importance of having an indoor distributed antenna system, says Steve Morris, executive vice president at RLS-CMC Inc.
“Before DAS, you would have cell phone service outside of the building, out in the street, but when you get inside the building you now have 20,000 people all using their phones, taking snapshots and talking on the phone, and the antenna outside the building doesn’t have the capacity to take all that data and pass it along to the providers.” With an indoor distributed antenna system, venues could provide uninterrupted wireless service.
In 2010, the company got its first project installing an indoor DAS for Water Tower Place, an elite shopping mall in Chicago. Sanchez says it turned out to be similar to installing a wireless network on the street level, “but instead of doing it horizontally you do it vertically” within the walls and ceiling of a building rather than along utility lines.
Since that first project, RLS-CMC Inc. has retrofitted high-end casinos on the Las Vegas strip, large hotel chains and convention centers. In 2014, the company completed one of its most challenging projects for the 48th Super Bowl. The game was hosted at the University of Phoenix stadium, but for the first time, the NFL decided to hold the press away from the venue in a twelve block radius in downtown Phoenix, called NFL Central. Neutral host companies hired RLS-CMC Inc. to install DAS, including an indoor DAS in two of the city’s iconic hotels. “It was the two most difficult structures in the twelve blocks but we completed it ahead of schedule,” says Sanchez.
Efficient building, not just the internet boom, has been important
Both Morris and Sanchez say experienced staff is a major factor in the company handling such large projects and being able to grow rapidly.
“Typically when we get a new project we need to figure out how to get it done yesterday. So we figure out which activities can be completed concurrently and then we try to find a schedule that works for everybody,” says Kevin Chase, a project manager with RLS-CMC Inc.
According to Chase, a lack of organization is what holds many of RLS-CMC’s competitors back. “A lot of companies have the same business model, but they struggle with being efficient, with knowing where the man power should be, which activities need to be completed at the right time,” says Chase. For instance, he has seen projects where a crew is brought in on Monday and Tuesday, but then has to wait until Friday for a part of the project to be completed before they can finish their work.
“We bring in our customers and building operators at the very beginning of a project,” he says. “We’re smart enough to get our contractors involved and get their opinions and we know their preferred schedule and we know how to keep them efficient to keep their costs down, which in return keeps our costs down.”
Sanchez is confident demand for the company’s services will continue to grow. “Think about this. You’re at the airport waiting to be picked up and your phone dies. Everyone freaks out and immediately runs over and plugs in the phone, but if the network doesn’t work, there is nowhere to plug in. People take wireless coverage for granted, which is why what we’re building is so vitally important.”
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