To the casual observer, the man walking the halls at the Domain at Tempe apartment community looked like something out of a science fiction movie. The visitor was walking at a slow, steady, measured pace throughout the community wearing a high-tech communications backpack that sported four different antennae, all of which connected to a tablet PC that generated real-time thermal images. As it turns out, the man in the strange suit was simply a cell phone service auditor, hired by the Domain’s developer, Ultimate Student Living (USL), to conduct a full-spectrum analysis of cell phone coverage on the property that included real-time, foot-by-foot data on reception for cell phone users who subscribed to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon as their primary carrier. “The auditing service is really cool,” says Jeff Horton, IT director for Ocoee, Fla.–based student housing developer USL. “The auditor takes a CAD drawing of the site and pre-plans an entire walk path through every floor, which is then linked to the computer via USB to an enhanced cell spectrum tester. The output is essentially a heat map of all four carriers showing decibel penetration at any point on the property.”

That heat map quickly told Horton that dead zones at the property were going to necessitate the installation of a distributed antenna system (or DAS, also commonly known as a repeater) in order to boost reception quality for Domain at Tempe’s residents. His predicament isn’t an isolated one: Multifamily apartment buildings have long struggled with cell phone reception in units that are typically encased in tons of steel, concrete, and other signal-blocking construction materials. Certain materials that have sprung from the green building movement—including low-E glass windows, which commonly employ metallic oxide coatings—can also hamper cell reception in smaller mid-rise and garden-style communities, so even as developers have sought to create smarter and more environmentally friendly apartment buildings, cell phone coverage has suffered.

Reception-Hungry Residents

So how important is call connectivity to apartment residents? While the market-rate side is somewhat bereft of statistical data, recent surveys of residents at multifamily student housing properties indicate that cell phone reception lags only shelter itself as the primary concern of chatty renters. According to a technology usage survey of some 52,000 student residents at 130 campuses conducted by Houston-based J Turner Research, student residents rank cell phone reception ahead of Internet service, gyms, pools, and community clubhouses as their most important apartment amenity. In fact, only the desire for larger bedroom sizes eclipses their craving to make calls without reception hindrances.

“We really have the most powerful bandwidth users in the world,” says Scott Casey, vice president of IT for Memphis, Tenn.–based EdR, which had several communities participate in the J Turner survey. “Our residents constantly challenge and stress our technology to the limits, and they are collectively moving in with all different cell providers and all want to walk in the door and have five bars.” As a result, EdR has entered into an agreement with Boston-based American Tower to investigate signal-boosting tactics across the EdR portfolio. “Ultimately, we think it will provide a great marketing opportunity for us to be able to say we are a five-bar property,” Casey says.

Specialist companies such as American Tower are one avenue for multifamily shops to begin addressing reception issues, and they typically provide services that include cell tower site selection and installation services as well as DAS network management.

Greensboro, S.C.–based Bell Partners is currently shopping several tower companies to help address reception issues at select properties across the firm’s 43,000-unit portfolio. “It’s a highly competitive world out there to get a cell tower,” says Bell Partners vice president of purchasing Mark Vernon. “We want to cover our bases on the cell towers, because obviously there is a lease component there with ancillary revenue, but if we can put repeaters in to boost our signals and give our residents better service and wider options, that’s really the honey pot we’re focused on right now.”

Stuck on Repeat

Vernon’s introduction to the world of cell reception–boosting options in multifamily is an illustrative one: Operators have been reduced to deciding primarily between the installation of DAS signal repeaters (antennae that boost the bandwidth of pre-existing signals) and the full-on installation of a new cell tower. When cell carriers were in their heyday of deploying infrastructure to establish (and compete with each other on) coverage, the upshot of tower installs could be lucrative—residents would benefit from a super-hot signal and owners could lease space to carriers on their rooftops for a much-needed antenna. If you can manage to score a rooftop tower lease, the ancillary revenue can vary drastically, from the commonly accepted benchmark of $1,500 a month to between $25,000 and $1 million over the life of a typical 25-year lease, according to Fort Myers, Fla.–based cell tower lease consulting firm Steel in the Air.

Prospects for new tower installs have become increasingly difficult, though, as cellular infrastructure has expanded across the country. At Bell, an initial review of the firm’s properties revealed only two front-runner locations where a tower install might be viable.

That leaves most operators looking at DAS repeater installs, which provide highly effective signal boosting but also involve significant up-front costs. “Tempe was $165,000 up front with $30,000 worth of fine-tuning, and [our] Maryland [project] is $225,000 out the door with the tuning inclusive. About $130,000 of that is electronics, and the rest of it is labor,” says USL’s Horton.

Whether $750 or so per door (depending on unit count) is a worthwhile investment for a cell repeater remains to be seen. While operators are mixed on whether they’ll market the full-bar experience to rental prospects, they’re unanimous that the service amenity will keep heads in beds. “We think it’s something that isn’t directly marketed but runs in the background, impacting leasing,” Vernon says.

Horton likewise says USL isn’t looking to immediately advertise cell reception, despite the firm’s initial satisfaction with DAS installs. “It doesn’t matter where I am on a property; I’ve got full service,” Horton says. “But residents don’t really think about that up front or recognize it in the marketing until they go to a property where they can’t get cell phone service. That’s when they begin to start looking for properties with cell service as an amenity. We’re banking that we’re going to capture a lot of that traffic by word of mouth.”