2008 will see gains in campus cell-phone coverage

Cell-phone users who have tried to make a call on campus, only to get a blank "no bars" icon on their phones, have not been hard to find. As part of ET Partners, third-year sociology major Suphain Htaung has dealt with technology on campus, and says cell coverage is one area that is lacking.

As captain of an intramural volleyball team, she once sent text messages to her players about an upcoming game. Poor coverage kept one player from receiving the text, so she did not make the match.

"We ended up playing with only four players on what's supposed to be a six-player game," Htaung said.

People on campus rely on cell coverage for school, work, or, like Htaung, for play. The Virginia Tech tragedy last year reminded all schools that the ability to communicate across campus is also a vital safety issue. But until recently, the only cell site on campus was west of Highway 113--too far to decently cover many places on campus.

The campus acknowledges that cell phone coverage has been "spotty" and needs to improve. And now it is.

"Spotty coverage has been a result of several factors involving construction standards and policies governing the installation of commercial services on campus," said Mark Redican, manager of the Network Operations Center for Communications Resources, a unit of Information and Educational Technology. "Over the past few years, with the increased popularity of cellular service, policies have started to change, and technological advances have addressed the construction-related issues."

2008 should see significant gains.

Here come the new cell sites

Communications Resources and the campus Real Estate Services department spent part of 2007 negotiating with the four major cellular service vendors--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mob ile--to install cell sites on campus to boost service.

"Each vendor was given the core campus map and told to submit their prospective locations based upon their assessment of their cellular signal coverage on campus," said Zack O'Donnell, service manager for Communications Resources. "The campus then reviewed the proposed locations for power, telecom, and structural integrity, and gave a 'go' or 'no go.' "

Verizon signed a deal with the campus to lease space by the North Entry garage, and was due to have its site built and functioning by the first of the year. Sprint also signed a contract, and has started construction of its cell site atop the Chemistry Annex Building.

AT&T and T-Mobile subscribers will have to wait a bit longer. AT&T's plans were due to be approved by the end of 2007, with construction to be completed in the first half of 2008. T-Mobile recently finalized its contracts, and its cell site construction should start in the later half of 2008.

Better on the inside, too

The vendors' cell sites should improve coverage inside nearby buildings. But people who don't buy their coverage from any of these wireless companies, or who still can't get a signal inside buildings, might also see better service on campus. That's because IET is looking at the possibility of installing "vendor neutral" coverage amplification systems to boost coverage in certain buildings.

Currently, inside coverage depends on the density of the building and how close the user is to a cell site. Certain buildings are better than others at allowing signals to pass.

"I don't get any service in buildings like Olson--not even on the top floor, forget the basement--Everson, Wellman, [or Shields] Library, just to name a few," Htaung said.

Vendor neutral amplification systems would improve coverage in structures like these, and b e installed where needed most. Though these systems are expensive, IET is working to propose funding models to support such installations in the future.

Construction specification plans for future buildings on campus are being revised to reserve money for amplification systems. If coverage in a building promises to be poor, the funds to improve coverage will be available, and vendor-neutral systems can be installed.

No towers or microwave dishes

The fees the companies pay to lease cell sites on campus will be reinvested in the campus UCDNet3 telecommunications system.

The campus told the vendors they could not block sight lines. As a result, the sites will sit atop light poles and buildings instead of in separate towers. The sites will carry signals over T-1 land lines instead of microwave dishes, often regarded as ugly.

"We hope for more upgrades ahead," O'Donnell said. "Once the sites are working and the new coverage can be assessed, UC Davis will meet with each vendor to discuss further improvements to coverage."

O'Donnell can be reached for questions at zmodonnell@ucdavis.edu.