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Rockefeller Center kicks up cell coverage

Bad or nonexistent indoor cellular coverage is one of the major complaints from cell phone users--so property owners are taking matters into their own hands.

A growing number of property owners are taking it upon themselves to improve cellular coverage inside their shops, transit stations and restaurants.

The latest example was Tuesday, when the owners of Rockefeller Center in New York announced that they spent an undisclosed amount of cash to improve cellular coverage inside the centers' shops and restaurants, which are visited by up to 60,000 people a day.

So far, only AT&T Wireless, the nation's third-largest wireless carrier, has given its customers access to the special cellular network built in the former dead zone of the buildings' interiors, according to the owners, Tishman Speyer Properties.

Bad or nonexistent indoor cellular coverage is one of the major complaints from cell phone users, some who can't even get coverage inside their own homes. Such dead zones continue to exist because wireless carriers put more emphasis on fixing their outdoor dead spots rather than improving coverage indoors, telephone analysts believe.

Many building owners recognize this and are taking the initiative by hiring indoor cellular systems makers like RadioFrame Networks, or InnerWireless to improve coverage, these companies said.

The indoor networks are added with the hopes of attracting more tenants or more foot traffic to the shops and restaurants that lease the space in property owners' buildings. They also allow the owners to work out revenue-sharing deals with carriers who lease time on the networks.

Better coverage was one of the "world-class amenities (for) our tenants and visitors," said Thomas Madden, managing director for Tishman Speyer.

InnerWireless built the system inside Rockefeller Center's 40 shops and restaurants. The company is in talks with many other property owners to do the same, said Annette Gieseman, InnerWireless marketing vice president.

Private property owners aren't the only ones looking into improved coverage; municipalities are also making the leap. So far, five metropolitan areas, including New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, have cellular networks inside some or all of their rapid transit systems. As was done with Rockefeller Center, the property owners invited carriers to lease time on the indoor network.

Owners of airports, universities and large buildings occupied by just one tenant seem especially interested, said Nextel Communications spokeswoman Audrey Schaeffer. Nextel was among the first carriers to sell better indoor coverage to its customers.

"It makes sense to bring additional coverage to high-traffic areas," Schaeffer said.

Representatives for Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Cingular Wireless had no comment Tuesday about any plans for indoor cellular coverage.

Jaimee Vetter, a spokeswoman for RadioFrame Networks, said the growth of indoor wireless networking using Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, is helping in the push.

More than 6 million businesses have added Wi-Fi--which creates a 300-foot radius area where devices can transfer files wirelessly--into their offices. That's forced their information technology departments to take a new look at their indoor wireless coverage in general.

"People are doing a lot more 802.11, so they are looking doing their in-building wireless coverage," Vetter said. "They want to take advantage of the opportunity to launch a wireless network and improve their indoor coverage."