Telephony / February 24, 1997
By Larry Luxner
NEW YORK -- They'll never compete with Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty for attention. In all probability, few New Yorkers -- let alone tourists -- will ever notice their presence.
But a forest of microcell antennas is quietly rising throughout midtown Manhattan, and they could soon make a world of difference to future cellular phone users in America's biggest city.
The project is part of a multimillion-dollar effort by AT&T Wireless Services Inc. to upgrade its mobile phone network -- in the wake of new competition by several newcomers armed with licenses from the FCC to provide PCS services in the New York metro area.
Dubbed the "Manhattan Project" by AT&T staff engineers just across the river in Paramas, New Jersey, the $30 million-plus undertaking is actually two projects in one. The first utilizes Ericsson equipment and technology to erect microcell antennas in strategic locations throughout the city, while the second is a recently completed, eight-month-long cooperative training effort between Ericsson USA and AT&T Wireless Services.
John Rasweiler, a senior RF engineer in the cellular division of AT&T Wireless Services' Manhattan region, explained the challenge his team initially was up against.
"Three years ago, we had a very high-density macrocellular system that was getting filled to capacity," he said."We couldn't build any more macrocell sites because of the building clutter. Signals would be shooting into high buildings and walls. You'd have that problem in any well-developed downtown core."
The problem was particularly acute in New York, with a population density of well over 24,000 people per square mile -- the highest in North America. It was compounded by the presence of hundreds of skyscrapers, including five towering at least 1,000 feet high.
The solution, he said, was a network of microcell antennas that would both improve signal quality while saving AT&T serious money.
"A conventional macrocell site costs $500,000 to $1 million including constructing a room to house the equipment, not to mention architectural plans and permits," he said. "A microcell costs one-third as much, and you don't have to build a room around it."
In fact, the average microcell site runs about $300,000 apiece, adds Rasweiler; roughly 75% of that is Ericsson equipment.
The Microcell Project began in earnest in the summer of 1994. "It took us six months to come out with our formal design. We also spent time researching the idea of microcell technology," explained the 26-year-old executive, who has a master's degree from Polytechnic University in nearby Brooklyn.
Rasweiler, RF engineer Steve Chen and seven others on AT&T's specialized team eventually mapped out a microcell network that would meet the needs of a growing system. So far, approximately 55 microcells are on the air in midtown Manhattan, a three-square-mile area bounded by 20th Street on the south, 65th Street on the north, Second Avenue on the East and Tenth Avenue on the west. Ten more are currently under construction.
That, incidentally, doesn't include Lower Manhattan (the financial district), which is considered a separate network. There, AT&T has "a couple of dozen" more microcells.
According to AT&T, each site uses Ericsson 882DM microcell equipment, though in the future, the idea is to use 884 base stations. All cells are IS-136 equipped. Interesting-ly, antennas are typically placed on buildings at between 25 and 50 feet above ground level, and are carefully camouflaged to blend in with the surroundings.
"We have to be very sensitive to aesthetics, so we don't deface what's considered a historical site," he said, noting that New York's Landmark Commission enforces such rules to the letter. "We have a very talented crew that includes artists who match the color, texture and pattern of the building fašade to the antenna."
One microcell is located at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas, just in front of the National Debt Clock, which displays America's growing dollar deficit. Another has been strategically placed at 44th and Lexington, while yet a third is hardly visible above the chaotic intersection of 53rd and Fifth Avenue.
"Lower Manhattan is a coverage-based microcell network," said Rasweiler. "That means a lot of the cells were built to improve poor signal quality. The midtown network was built to support a high-density, large volume of users. These microcells penetrate into buildings. For example, with a macrocell you can't get coverage inside the lobby of a building, but a microcell would give you coverage. When a customer hits the send button, their call has a better chance of going through because the microcell improves signal quality on the street, and in the skyscrapers around the cell."
Keeping customers happy is especially important in New York, a metropolitan area of 12 million people and well over 1.5 million cellular subscribers. Of that number, AT&T has around one million customers -- each of whom are paying an average $55 a month based on industry standards. AT&T's biggest rival traditionally has been Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile, though competition from the PCS side is showing up more recently from Sprint, Nextwave and Omnipoint.
Like 1900-megahertz PCS, "Digital PCS" -- officially launched by AT&T on Oct. 1, 1996 -- operates on 800 megahertz and offers customers enhanced features such as call waiting, message-waiting indicator and four-digit speed dialing.
Experts say the U.S. cellular industry is projected to grow by 35% a year; AT&T's New York PCS buildout will be proportional to that growth.
"It's all driven by demand," says Mike Buhrmann, vice-president of wireless strate-gies for AT&T Network Services in Seattle. "We're happy with the capacity of our TDMA systems, and as we require more capacity, we'll put in more microcells. But it's not some-thing we're going to put in everywhere, because we don't need that capacity in every location. In Manhattan, we require it because it also improves the quality of our service, given all the portables that are walking down the street."