AT&T’s Palo Alto Wireless Improvements Get Rocky Reception

April 6, 2011

Despite the friendly face it is putting on its strategy to beef up wireless reception in Palo Alto, AT&T is facing some rough local resistance to its implementation ideas from citizens of the cultural center of Silicon Valley.

Though AT&T has earned city approval to install a new regular cellular antenna as well as some new antennas to support a public Wi-Fi hotspot zone, its actions have riled some residents including one longtime Internet technologist who has threatened to cut off the city government’s free Internet access due to his opposition to the cell-tower approval process. There was also heated debate about the Wi-Fi hotspot plan, which eventually won city approval in part because of AT&T’s pledge to install the gear without entering the building the antennas will be mounted on.

So far there has been no city decision on a wider-reaching AT&T plan to install numerous smaller cellular antennas in a technology deployment known as Outdoor Distributed Antenna System (ODAS), which like the other ideas is aimed chiefly at improving AT&T’s cellular reception in the California city that is home to a wide range of Silicon Valley leaders and influencers, and sits next door to Stanford University. The Palo Alto deployment is part of a wide-ranging AT&T strategy to increase the number of DAS deployments nationwide, but like the other ideas it is running into some local opposition.

While the smaller DAS antennas (which can be mounted on existing structures like power poles) might seem more aesthetically acceptable, several residents feared that by agreeing to allow AT&T to install the antennas the city could be jeopardizing a long-standing plan to bury utility lines and eliminate overhead poles. According to one news report, the Palo Alto city council may “step back and discuss a larger, citywide approach” to cellular implementation plans, based on the contentious nature of some recent applications like AT&T’s.

Donovan: AT&T has ‘Hundreds’ Working on DAS

March 22, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — Remember that outdoor distributed antenna system (DAS) AT&T wants to deploy in Palo Alto that we told you about earlier this month? At the CTIA Wireless show here Tuesday AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan confirmed that Ma Bell has a new team focused solely on DAS deployments, with a headcount in the hundreds.

“I won’t tell you exactly how many, but we do have hundreds of people working on DAS [deployments],” said Donovan in a brief interview following one of his many panel appearances Tuesday. According to Donovan AT&T already has several DAS deployments operational, including another outdoor one in Chicago where the small DAS antennas are attached to light poles.

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Easy DAS it, Palo Alto — Or, How AT&T is Using Small Antennas to Fix its Big Network Problems

March 7, 2011

If all goes according to AT&T’s wishes, the city of Palo Alto may soon become the premier testing spot for Ma Bell’s plan to boost its cellular network power by installing a large number of small cellular antennas around town. Ostensibly billed as a method for AT&T to overcome terrestrial and urban challenges in Palo Alto, the small-antenna plan for Silicon Valley’s cultural nexus is also part of a big nationwide push of Distributed Antenna System (DAS) technology deployment by AT&T to help Ma Bell get its overtaxed cellular network back up to speed.

Historically used to improve cellular coverage inside of buildings, DAS is basically a method to deploy a series of synchronized smaller antennas instead of a larger, cellular antenna array, such as those found atop buildings or on the unsightly antenna towers that are now a common part of the urban landscape. Inside a building, a DAS can help improve cellular reception by bringing small antennas closer to users inside, who then don’t have to connect their cell phones through walls or windows. A typical DAS system might then route the internal antenna connections to a stronger antenna connection on the roof to link to the parent cellular network, improving throughput while conserving device and antenna power.

In Palo Alto AT&T is proposing to build out about 80 new DAS tower sites, placing them atop regular utility poles in and around Palo Alto’s leafy downtown area. If the plan wins city approval Palo Alto’s AT&T customers should see marked improvement in cellular connectivity, simply due to the increased number of available towers that can connect iPhones and other devices back to AT&T’s network. According to AT&T’s extensive Palo Alto wireless information web site, the proposal has been submitted to the city but no decision has yet been made.

This is what a DAS antenna in Palo Alto might look like in the wild. Credit: AT&T.

According to industry insiders, AT&T has recently committed significant internal resources to stepping up its DAS deployment efforts nationwide — indeed, AT&T mentions DAS deployments prominently in several recent press releases touting network improvement plans in cities including Seattle, Houston, Dallas and Kansas City among others. For AT&T, using DAS deployments seems to make a lot of sense — given that the company’s current network suffers from a lack of backhaul capacity, it might be easier for AT&T to more quickly increase its cellular reach by installing a lot of smaller antennas than by trying to significantly upgrade existing antenna deployments, since the latter method could involve expensive, time-consuming acts like ripping up streets to bring fiber connections to tower sites.

Smaller DAS antennas might also pass civic muster more quickly than new traditional cell-tower deployments, which generally take a year or more of paperwork for all licensing and regulatory clearance even when there is no neighborhood opposition. And as all cellular service providers know, opposition to new cell towers is almost a given, so outdoor DAS may be the wave of the future should AT&T’s Palo Alto deployment prove successful.

AT&T infographic explaining the need for DAS in Palo Alto.

AT&T is also planning to build out a public Wi-Fi hotspot in Palo Alto, much along the lines of similar deployments in New York and Chicago. Though AT&T has touted the hotspots as a successful strategy, our attempts to ask AT&T to quantify the usage of said hotspots has so far gone unanswered. From an industry standpoint the DAS deployment has more far-reaching ramifications especially with AT&T’s planned launch of Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G services later this year. With more antenna connections, AT&T could conceivably offer much better network performance in a much faster time frame, even just by offloading existing users from the crowded existing antenna towers. That may make DAS a savior technology as Ma Bell tries to add more heavy data users to an already crowded cellular infrastructure.