While there’s little question that cell phone and wireless connectivity is important to apartment residents, debate continues over apartment firms’ responsibilities in providing consistent, quality connections and the right technologies to address signal issues.
During a CIO panel at the 2014 NMHC OpTech Conference, leading tech execs questioned apartment firms’ role in the whole equation. Shawn Mahoney, CIO of GID, for example, said, “I’ve done a lot of soul searching on this, and I’ve never really gotten any support on investment in a lot of this technology. None of our studies show that people are moving out because of bad phone service.”
However, Scott Wesson, senior vice president and CIO of UDR, said that there are many examples of residents who absolutely need reliable connectivity to perform their jobs and, if they can’t get it, will be dissatisfied and ultimately move. A doctor on call, for example, must be reachable on his cell phone.
“However, I do scratch my head and say, why is this my problem to solve? But when you’ve got $100 million invested in a lease up, you don’t want something that you could’ve done six months ago to get in the way of that,” he said.
“I do have a problem spending money to attach a ‘telco’ to its customer and thus revenue stream-but not as much as having a problem with a lease up,” he added.
A range of technology solutions exist-from small-scale femto cells to building-wide distributed antennae systems (DAS)-to address wireless connectivity issues, but each has limitations as well as wildly varying price tags. (Click here for a primer from NMHC’s Vice President of Industry Technology Initiatives Rick Haughey.)
Many large apartment firms are looking for one-stop-shop solutions but find themselves frustrated by top-of-the-line DAS solutions, which can offer exceptional coverage but require a hefty investment. Further compounding the issue is that a property owner may spend the beaucoup bucks to install the system but there’s no guarantee that the cellular service provider will ultimately provide the authorization to rebroadcast, making the system functional.
Wesson said part of the problem is that real estate companies and telecom companies look at growth differently. “In order to invest, we need to believe you can create more value. That means, oftentimes, we invest in areas that are going to grow,” he said. “But the ‘telco” companies don’t know it 24 months in advance [like we do].”
However, during a drill-down session on the specific technologies that can address wireless connectivity issues, experts noted that a new tech development could end up filling a needed void in the market. In June, Apple announced the features and functions of IOS 8; one of the less known features of the operating systems is wifi calling, which will allow users to native dial on their phones using a wifi network. Sprint and T Mobile have already agreed to support wifi calling on all their phones and AT&T and Verizon expect to do the same in 2015.
“It means the four major carriers would effectively offer a voice calling facility that could be seamless to the user, meaning the user doesn’t know if he's on the wifi or cell service,” explained Dick Sherwin, CEO of Spot On Networks. “It’s a cost effective way to implement voice calling.”