Betsy Feigin Befus, vice president of employment policy and counsel, National Multi Housing Council
BILL AUTH Betsy Feigin Befus, vice president of employment policy and counsel, National Multi Housing Council

Thanks to widespread broadband availability and the proliferation of new mobile devices, more apartment provider–resident ­interaction now happens online than in person. Indeed, technology has permanently transformed the relationship between apartment residents and apartment firms. As this shift has occurred, reliable Internet and mobile coverage have become important factors in residents’ expectations of—and satisfaction with—their apartment homes and communities.

With the advent and growing popularity of laptops, smart phones, tablets, and Internet-enabled televisions, data consumption has exploded. According to Nielsen’s 2011 U.S. Mobile Insights report, as of the third quarter of last year, Internet-enabled smart phones made up 46 percent of mobile phones in the United States. At the same time, monthly data usage more than doubled among both 25- to 34-year-olds and 35- to 44-year-olds from the previous year. Moreover, 40 percent of tablet and smart phone owners use the devices while watching television. And the consumer appetite for ­mobile ­Internet shows no sign of abating. In fact, a recent study by the Yankee Group research firm estimates that mobile consumption will be about 60 times greater by 2015 than it is today.

Reliable Connections Are Key

As apartment residents increasingly want more, better, and faster telecommunications services, apartment owners and managers are recognizing that reliable connections can be a key factor in resident satisfaction. Prospective residents check cellular reception when they visit apartment communities, and resident complaints about spotty coverage and limited options regularly appear on apartment-rating websites and social media outlets.

Coverage and reliability issues can challenge apartment owners and managers’ best ­efforts to meet resident expectations. The various causes of coverage gaps often limit the ­options for practical and effective solutions. Similarly, the relative scope of a problem can affect a potential solution’s viability. For example, a gap could be limited to a small area of the community, or it might affect residents who are served by one specific service provider. Multiple service providers on a site and resident turnover also influence solution options.

In addition, certain building materials, both old and new, can block or weaken cellular signals. Some types of energy-efficient insulation composed of fiberglass, foam, or foil can be problematic, along with certain windows and roofs. The overall size of an apartment community and even the surrounding natural topography can also interfere with coverage. Furthermore, some problems require solutions beyond the reach of apartment owners and managers because they involve provider infrastructure.

But connectivity issues go beyond resident satisfaction. Unreliable coverage and “dead zones” can affect building safety by limiting the ability of first responders to communicate and react to an emergency. Some jurisdictions are establishing signal and reception requirements for apartment communities, including some areas of the property with particular challenges, such as underground parking facilities. This could mean an expensive retrofit even before the building has its certificate of occupancy.

No Guarantees

The range of factors that influence cellular coverage and reliability can be unpredictable, and potential solutions may necessitate unrecoverable costs without a guaranteed fix. Repeaters and femtocells—small-scale devices that strengthen existing wireless signals—can improve certain coverage issues. But wireless boosters have a limited range and may require numerous installations within an affected area of the community, or even within a single apartment home. Moreover, they generally work with one specific service provider, making multiple devices necessary when affected residents are served by multiple providers.

Distributed antenna systems (DASs), more typically associated with academic campuses, hospitals, stadiums, and municipal settings, are larger-scale solutions that may be appropriate for some apartment communities. A DAS can extend wireless coverage and support multiple providers. However, it can be difficult to predict prior to installation whether an expensive DAS will actually achieve the intended solutions for coverage and capacity.

Coverage issues aside, growing consumer demand for Internet and mobile technology is contributing to an overarching broadband and wireless spectrum crunch, resulting in an ongoing debate in Congress and among federal regulatory agencies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supports using incentive auctions to reallocate some broadcast bandwidth to meet growing demand. In this scenario, broadcasters would return unused bandwidth to the FCC, which would turn around and auction it off, sharing a portion of the proceeds with the participating broadcast companies.

The National Multi Housing Council/­National Apartment Association Joint Legislative Program continues to monitor these issues, advocating for policies that support the availability of reliable wireless and mobile service that satisfies residents’ desires and safety needs without placing unreasonable burdens on apartment providers.

Betsy Feigin Befus is vice president of employment policy and counsel at the National Multi Housing Council, based in Washington, D.C., with principal responsibility for labor, employment, and immigration issues affecting the apartment industry.