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Why Cell Service is a Critical Amenity

student housing good cell reception

High-tech amenities are all the rage, but if a student housing community does not have good cell reception, owners are already a step behind.

Student housing REIT EdR always tries to build its new communities to a LEED standard, striving for Silver, but often ending up at Gold. The practice is great for the building’s value, the environment, energy costs and, yes, even marketing.
But there is one drawback. 

“With LEED buildings comes the challenges of getting cellular signals into the building,” says Scott P. Casey, Senior Vice President of Strategic Business Development and Chief Technology Officer, at EdR. “You have thicker walls, additional insulation, and windows that are tinted to deal with the sun.”

For Casey, the situation is frustrating because he can stand on the dirt where the community will be built before EdR breaks ground and get five bars on his phone. “But by the time I build the community at the same site, I’m struggling with some of the cell service providers.”

The cell reception problem is not just unique to LEED buildings, says Javier Esteban, AIA, LEED AP for KWK Architects. “In terms of Wi-Fi and cellphone use, the issue is often poor reception with some buildings due to the use of heavy density concrete and Concrete Masonry Units (CMU) in their construction,” he says. 

Cell service is critical. Despite all of the high-tech amenities that apartment and student housing developers offer today, none of it matters if there is not good cell service, even in conventional apartments. 

“As we learn more about top priorities for renters, we know that cell phone service always ranks in the top three as a must have when choosing their next home,” said Cristina Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer at Gables Residential. “Very often when people tour our communities, they pull up their cell phones and check to see if they have a signal.”

Nicole Kane, President of Property Connect Advisors, agrees.

“Cell reception is important at every community, from student to senior, and based upon the average land line subscription rate at my client's conventional assets, at least 95% of residents, are only using a cell phone,” Kane says. “Resident’s safety is a major concern for my clients, so we utilize heat mapping, and cell coverage analytics, to determine if there are ‘dead zones,’ and utilize solutions such as small cells, and coverage amplifiers to combat them.”

Kane contends that students are more likely to use calling apps, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and FaceTime, which would appear to make good reception less necessary. “Due to the way they make calls, student residents aren’t as concerned with cell phone coverage, as they are with internet service,” she says.

But there’s a catch: student safety.

“For us, having good Wi-Fi reception is not so much the convenience for the students to be able to use their phones inside the building because we offer great Wi-Fi,” Casey says. “The Wi-Fi will be faster anyway and you can do calls over Wi-Fi. But it is a life safety issue for us. If students are in their apartments, they are not getting a signal and they have to call 911 or the parents cannot reach them, we have a problem.”

To ensure its residents have service, EdR will strategically place boosters throughout a community to improve the cell signal. 

Casey says communities that back up to a garage or lack windows in bedrooms can present additional difficulty. At a community near Iowa State University that lacked windows, EdR is budgeting to put in 10 boosters at a cost of $20,000 during construction because it knows those bedrooms will have bad cell signals.

“So far, we have been lucky we don’t have to do the whole building just dead spots throughout the building,” Casey says

But sometimes bigger fixes are needed. At a community near the University of Virginia, EdR was forced to install a distributed antenna system for $200,000. Ultimately, the system yielded more benefits that just better cell service.

“It solved the life safety issue and we were the only property in town with good AT&T service,” Casey says. “It improved leasing because we advertised that we were a five-bar community.”