If you are experiencing dropped calls on your cellphone or can’t get a cell signal inside certain areas of your senior living community, it probably is not your cellular service provider’s fault. Other factors typically cause indoor cellular coverage issues. But the good news is that these challenges can be easily and cost-effectively overcome with the right technology solution.

Causes of poor indoor cellular coverage

Cellular technologies have advanced so much over the years that today, the cellular signal outdoors generally is good whether you are in a suburban or urban area. Culprits such as topography, mountains or trees, and construction materials such as concrete walls, can block signals from getting inside buildings and result in poor reception.

LifeSpire of Virginia

“Many new senior living facilities are built using energy efficient materials,” said David Midcap, engineer at MABC Technology Solutions, a Virginia-based systems integrator that recently helped LifeSpire of Virginia, a continuing care retirement community, address its in-building cellular coverage challenges. “These materials, such as LEED certified glass windows, block cellular signals from penetrating into the building, and can leave areas inside the building without cell coverage,” he said.

This exact issue at LifeSpire resulted in poor cellular coverage and in turn negatively impacted operations, according to Robert E. Wilbanks, vice president of information technology at LifeSpire. “Nursing staff could not use their cell phones to return calls from residents’ family members while out on the floor. The signal was so bad they had to wait until their break or after work. Some residents also had no cell service in their rooms at all. This left areas without any coverage at all,” he said.

Hybrid solution resolves cell reception problems

A variety of solutions and technologies are available to improve indoor cellular coverage, from low-cost but unreliable Wi-Fi calling to traditional active distributed antenna systems, which are high-performance but cost-prohibitive because they are designed for large venues such as stadiums and airports. Traditional DAS also can take a year or more to install due to contract negotiations required with each individual carrier that needs to be amplified.

For LifeSpire, MABC Technology Solutions took a different approach and designed a solution based on Cel-Fi QUATRA, a hybrid multi-carrier active DAS solution for 3G/4G/5G voice and data. This technology hit the market in 2020 specifically to address the challenges of poor voice quality, dropped calls and gaps in cellular coverage for facilities under 1 million square feet, from hospitals to apartment units in partial or fully assisted living communities.

The active DAS hybrid solution combines the high performance benefits of a traditional active DAS, but at a much lower price point. It offers up to 1000 times more gain than solutions based on older technology, and it can be installed in just weeks. 

“At LifeSpire, they really only had issues with [two carriers]. Since the hybrid solution can be used in single or multi-carrier environments, we were able to deliver just what was needed,” said Greg Miller, vice president of sales at MABC Technology Solutions.

Both the safety and quality of life of residents were improved by boosting the cellular coverage inside the LifeSpire facilities, according to Wilbanks. Previously, the emergency/distress button system was limited to Wi-Fi only. “Now, the cellular boost allows the phones to run on either Wi-Fi or cellular, so staff never miss an alert,” he said. Residents also can use their cell phones in their apartments.

Questions to ask when evaluating solutions

When evaluating solutions to improve in-building cellular coverage in your senior living community, ask your vendor or solution provider the following questions:

  • Choice: Is the system more complex (and costly) than you need, or is it at the other end of the spectrum, not robust enough to provide the quality of service required in your community?
  • References: What is the actual coverage footprint of the system (not just the specifications)? Are there references from owners/managers of similar size and type of buildings?
  • Timeline: How long will it take to install the system?
  • Planning: Can you show me a map of where coverage is weak in the building and how the system will provide the reception needed?
  • Carrier-grade approved: Is the proposed system carrier approved for 3G/4G/5G voice and data?

Knowing your options and getting answers to these questions are great first steps in determining the best solution for improving cellular coverage in your senior living community.

Dean Richmond is the senior director of marketing at Nextivity. Over the span of his career, he has developed strategies and launched products across the information technology and wireless product spectrum. Richmond has built strategic partnerships between channel partners, operators, broadband providers, and brands such as Microsoft, Google, Intel, Sony and Toshiba to grow business units successfully. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit www.cel-fi-com.