For nine years, Verizon Wireless ruled the wireless industry advertising space with its iconic if mildly irritating “Can You Hear Me Now?” campaign. The campaign featured a nerdy-looking “test man” who traveled all over the country, testing nearly inch by inch the reliability of Verizon’s wireless network. What made the campaign so effective is that it tapped into cell phone users’ desire to be connected anytime, anywhere while giving a playful nod to the collective frustration over weak service and dropped calls.

While the highly successful ad series finished its run in 2011, many apartment residents are unfortunately still asking, “Can you hear me now?” The recent NMHC/Kingsley Resident Preferences Survey reported that over one-third (37 percent) of residents said cell phone coverage in their community was “weak” or “spotty.”

Expectations of our residents relating to cell service have evolved dramatically. Two in five American adults (41.0 percent) have only wireless telephone service at home, according to the National Center for Health Statistics report Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2013. That figure jumps to 61.7 percent for adults living in rental homes, underscoring how critical ensuring reliable cellular connectivity is in apartment communities.

As renters increasingly forgo landline phones and rely solely on cell phones, the quality of connectivity in an apartment can be a deciding factor in whether to renew or sign a lease.

Staying on Top of Connectivity Problems
Cellular service providers have continued to expand their coverage and capacity, but demand is more than keeping pace. This leaves apartment owners and managers to deal, once again, with an issue that may not be of their making but that requires their attention and creative solutions.

While most connectivity problems involve simple coverage issues related to the property being located too far from the nearest cell tower, there are a host of other potential headaches that can be more difficult to diagnose.

Investing in a radio frequency study can give owners and operators an early heads up on some cellular connectivity issues prior to the development of a site or purchase of a property. In many cases, understanding the connectivity issues at play before construction can save time, money, and stress by allowing solutions to be integrated earlier rather than retrofitted later.

Similarly, determining the answers to a battery of questions can help pinpoint the problem and begin to identify solutions. Are the signal problems affecting a small area of the building or are they propertywide? Is the problem with one particular cellular service provider, or all of them? Does the problem extend to the wider neighborhood? If the entire neighborhood is a dead zone, is there a competitive advantage to solving the problem in the community, or is the expectation of poor service accepted by the market? Is there an opportunity to band together with your neighboring community managers to lobby cell service providers for a new cell tower?

Signal interference and attenuation also can play a part in disrupting cellular connectivity. However, determining the exact cause of the interference can be difficult. Geographic, topographic, and other natural features can disrupt connectivity, as can man-made features such as neighboring buildings and nearby transmission equipment. Certain building materials (roofing, concrete, steel, insulation, and low-E glass, for example) can also be culprits.

A Variety of Solutions
Fortunately, a wide variety of solutions exists to tackle connectivity problems. The challenge is to select the best solution at a reasonable cost—not always easy to do. Other challenges include regulatory issues, including federal requirements for the registration of commercial signal boosters and broad access to emergency phone service. The potential for a “disruptive” technology, such as Wi-Fi calling, to make any of these solutions only temporary poses yet another hurdle.

The quick reference guide above outlines some of the technologies that can help improve cellular connectivity in apartment communities.

NMHC will release additional information on telecommunication solutions in 2015 as part of a new white paper addressing cellular and wireless connectivity issues in apartment communities.

Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council. He can be reached at [email protected].