Get Connected

Working in telecom upgrades and options can improve a community’s competitive edge.

An apartment unit is more than a home; for today’s tech-savvy renter, it can—and should—also be telecom central, with the ability to stay connected to the outside world via data, text and voice.

As the economy recovers and communities strive to rebuild occupancy, repositioning oneself as a cutting-edge telecom player, with telecom services and choices including Internet, telephone and TV services, can significantly boost a community’s competitive advantage.

“A while ago, offering Internet speeds of three to five times dial-up may have been adequate, but now owners are realizing they have to go back and rethink that,” says Richard Holtz, CEO of Infinisys Electronic Architects, a multifamily technology consultancy and design firm. “The feeling is, they need to use a wedge to attract those in the iPhone generation with whatever tools they can.”

Holtz says a relatively easy upgrade might be setting up a 3-D television lounge in a community center, equipped with one of the new sets from such manufacturers as Toshiba, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic or LG, among others entering the game. This year, both the Grammy Awards, featuring a Michael Jackson Tribute Sequence, and the Masters Golf Tournament were broadcast in live 3-D, so getting in on the ground floor of this new phenomenon could provide significant competitive moxie.

Certainly communities and owners will want to consider examining their existing Internet service, and think about investing in faster technology. The average speed for cable—what the apartment community down the street may offer—is perhaps 8 megabits per second (Mbps) for uploading files and 2 Mbps for downloading files, usually abbreviated as 8 x 2. Fiber-optic lines can increase that significantly, to 15 x 5, while high-priced versions via fiber-optics report a screaming 50 x 20 in some areas.

There are barriers to implementing such upgrades, however, including location. Fiber coverage is not universal, and it can be prohibitively expensive to run service to a community far away from the source of service. Further, Verizon, the first major U.S. carrier to offer fiber to homes, might be induced to bring fiber cable to an apartment community at little or no cost if there are sufficient users. Without existing users, however, and with a goal of simply improving community amenities to enhance its marketability, the owner would have to foot the bill.

Still, providing speeds approaching the top-end  of the market can offer a significant marketing advantage to the right demographic, Holtz says.

Sell those cells

Any multifamily community wanting to stay current with its telecom offerings should take a look at the most basic step: ensuring that the community’s buildings don’t block cellular communications, or exist in a cellular “dead zone.” In every market, there are communities that, somehow or other, have little or no cell phone reception. It can be particularly moribund in interior courtyards.

“Prospective tenants who find this out just won’t lease,” notes Michael Watts, senior vice president with J.F. McKinney & Associates. A cellular repeater system can help here, Watts says, which rebroadcasts cellular signals by using a signal amplifier, an internal rebroadcast antenna and a rooftop reception antenna, essentially converting a building into its own cellular tower.

AT&T recently introduced its 3G MicroCell, which jacks up speeds for smartphones using the notorious spotty 3G technology, that phones such as the iPhone, Droid and Blackberry use. The hardware itself costs $150, and comes with a $20-per-month subscription. An apartment community may need several to spread the reception around.

The need for this is palpable. Research firm Gartner projects that by 2013, the installed base of smartphones will hit 1.82 billion units, exceeding the 1.78 billion computers expected to be in use by that time. Enhanced wireless communications promise to make the cellular telephone the computer of the future, and multifamily communities must be capable of providing outstanding reception.

Finally, choice is always a compelling marketing option, and communities able to offer residents an array of competing carriers offering bundled services can have an inside edge over the competition. Owners should investigate which carriers’ wiring currently is being brought in, as well as what is available at the curb.

“One of the most important considerations of telecommunications infrastructure is diversity of carriers,” says Colton Brown, managing director with New York-based real estate firm Colliers International. Besides looking better than the competition, a community offering a plethora of carrier choices also allows for competitive pricing among them, according to Brown, “a not insignificant cost that many people overlook.”

Telecom choice isn’t an inexpensive proposition. Whether the manhole in the street contains wiring from various carriers is one thing. Bringing in extra service from the curb to the community could cost upwards of $100,000, says Watts, even before the routing throughout buildings begins.

To comment on this story, e-mail Diana Mosher at [email protected].

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