The Long, Strange Trip of DAS Pioneer Mark Parr
Trying hard to keep his footing on the deck of the USS Forrestal with the wind whipping at over 40 knots in the freezing rain, a skinny, 24-year old Petty Officer Mark Parr found himself soldering an antenna joint at midnight in the North Atlantic. Those nights were not uncommon.
Parr began his professional life in the Navy, as an Electronics Technician elevating to a First Class Petty Officer (E-6). By connecting leaky cable and antennas on the flight deck, in the hangar bays, and throughout various levels of the ship, Parr enabled personnel throughout the ship to communicate while on the run during periods of watertight integrity. In effect, in the mid-80s, he jury-rigged what is known today as a Distributed Antenna System (DAS). He later was responsible for the management and maintenance of radio communications and radar systems for the AEGIS Combat Systems Center, Wallops Island, VA.
Radio frequency technology, the bedrock of Navy communications and the underlying foundation for air and vessel guidance, would lead Parr to pursue a civilian career in the industry we now know as wireless. In high-rise towers and subway tunnels, Parr installed DAS and WiFi systems in some of the most complex environments around the world.
Pagers, Smart Watches, and Broadband - the 90s are Calling
When the nineties ushered in the era of wireless pager technology, Parr found himself in the thick of a burgeoning market. He was responsible for building the New Jersey market for PageNet, which became the largest messaging company in the world. That experience introduced Parr to system design, deployment, operations, sales support, administration, and customer service. All skills he would need going forward as a future executive and entrepreneur.
“I first met Mark when he was at PageNet in the early 90s, but he made his first big impression on me when he was at SEIKO™,” said Rich Berliner, Publisher of Connected Real Estate. “Mark was showing me smart watches in 1995! He has always been way ahead of his time.”
Parr was designing end-to-end solutions to support the SEIKO MessageWatch™ in the U.S. and countries all over the world. He then got the entrepreneurial bug and went on to represent broadcast radio spectrum, leasing spectrum throughout the U.S.
DAS Market Comes of Age
Throughout the early aughts, the DAS market blossomed. At first carriers used DAS to solve coverage problems in specific locations both indoors and out. By the end of the decade, they were also using it to boost capacity in crowded, high-profile venues. The iPhone had arrived in 2007, and by 2011 U.S. carriers were deploying LTE. Consumers were learning that they had tiny computers in their pockets and data use skyrocketed as the smartphone became the go-to device for business and social interaction. With up to 85% of data use occurring indoors, the in-building DAS market took off, surpassing $5 billion by 2017 and projected to reach $9 billion by 2020.
It was as if the DAS market was custom-made for Parr. There are those in the industry who will claim Parr coined the terms oDAS, iDAS, uDAS, BSH, and others, but that may be urban legend. Even Parr is unassuming about his role in the early market foundations, but his legacy is well-known among the old-timers.
Parr says there are a lot of unsung heroes from those early days who strung cable through ceilings, climbed sketchy ladders onto rooftops, or side-shuffled in the dark on narrow subway platforms to help create the vast DAS market we know today. He’s one of many, but he’s proud of the industry he helped found in those early days.
Some of Parr’s greatest stories involve high-stress pressure cookers like the time he had to get creative with a solution before the new DAS was fully installed at 30 Rockefeller Center. The headquarters of the New York studios of the NBC/Universal broadcast network was busy 24/7, and a magnet for out-of-town tourists every day of the week. Parr said he got the call that the Sunday Night Football premiere was going live, and the show’s host could not communicate with the field. Parr had to scramble and rig a temporary solution. He duct-taped an antenna to the window of an office and pointed it down the street, wired cable through Saturday Night Live’s studio into a closet, and put antennas into studio 8G to get the job done. He says every famous person he saw in that building yelled at him that night, but he pulled it off.
Parr’s next big move was to Dianet Communications, the company his longtime friend and partner Jeff Just started with Eric Mercer and Jerry Bauman. There Parr would design and build over 200 million square feet of DAS networks for various Fortune 500 companies, wireless providers, and public safety agencies.
The New York Subway System - The Ultimate DAS Labyrinth
The highlight of Parr’s career so far, and some might say the DAS industry itself, came in 2008, when Dianet Communications, then a subsidiary of Transit Wireless, was awarded a 20-year DAS and wireless contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for the New York City subway system. It would become the largest, most complex DAS installation in the world, and still holds that record to date.
The small Dianet/Transit Wireless team competed for the contract against much larger competitors, but Parr, who was CTO on the project, sealed the deal by designing a unique technology solution that set the standard for subway installations. The MTA had very specific and technical specifications for the network covering licensed and unlicensed spectrum, including public safety communications. Paramount among the specs was the requirement to ceiling-mount and seal equipment that would withstand the extreme heat and dirty environment of a busy underground station. The network had to survive the variations of busy subway rider foot traffic on the platform in a stone and metal environment, with trains often blocking the signal. Larger competitors told the MTA that the technology did not exist that could meet the city’s ambitious aspirations for the network and that they’d have to settle for less. The Dianet/Transit Wireless team prevailed because Parr proposed new patented technology that met all the criteria that they would have custom manufactured. This RF node design with three antennas secured at the platform and another secured remotely is the standard configuration for delivering WiFi, cellular, voice, and data coverage in subway stations today.
“Mark led the network design and operations with us at Dianet and Transit Wireless,” said partner Jeff Just. “I don't use the word genius lightly, but Mark comes as close as anyone I have ever worked with. He has a detailed and intuitive understanding of the technology coupled with a business sense that is rare in engineers.”
The complexity of the NY subway system is daunting. The network serves 282 underground stations. It is the largest DAS network in the world, covering all NYC underground stations with expansions into the tunnels. There are integrated access points throughout each station, and 160 miles of carrier grade fiber optic cable connect each station to one of the system’s 5 base station hotels, which house base stations, radio heads, servers, internet gateways, switches, routers, back-up power supplies and HVAC. The system is privately funded, with a license that extends to 2038 and covers all current and future commercial wireless bands, as well as unlicensed WiFi bands. It supports Transit apps, public safety and security requirements for federal, state, and city agencies.
The Next Chapter
After Transit Wireless, Parr wanted to catch up with friends and family, relax and enjoy some leisure time at his favorite cigar bar at the Jersey shore. He considered starting a record label and recording albums for his musician friends on the Asbury Park music scene.
But the phone kept ringing.
Parr was getting calls for DAS designs around Manhattan. He recruited Just to pursue the leads that were coming at them and put the team back together. They launched Bandwidth Logic in 2013, hiring a number of veterans and former clients, including Jim Trella as V.P. of Network Engineering, who was a former customer at Quinnipiac University. The new company set up shop in Iselin, N.J.
Parr and Bandwidth Logic were recruited by Transit Wireless’ sister company BAI Canada to help architect communications for the Toronto Transit Commission, the second largest subway system in North America. Soon after, the team was asked to help win a contract for and then design the underground portions of Seattle’s light rail system. That work led to an invitation to aid a client in winning the Atlanta MARTA subway system contract.
It wasn’t long before the startup team secured their first blockbuster in-building deal: 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan. The building is the largest commercial office real estate in New York City and the second largest in the entire U.S. It has 72 stories with 4 million square feet. Approximately 30,000 people enter the building every weekday. Bandwidth Logic is the neutral host DAS provider with three carriers on board. The DAS consists of 32 high-power units located around the towers combined with 1,000 interior antennas in the ceilings. There are 9,000 feet of single-mode fiber optic cable to connect the remotes; 110,000 feet of coaxial cable connect the remote antenna units from access points installed in the lobby and two outdoor parks.
Today, Bandwidth Logic has strong deal flow and partner activity. The company sponsored at Connect (X) and is busy planning for the fall conference season.
When Parr is not responding to RFPs and entertaining clients in his new home in Naples, Florida or on the golf course, you can find him scoping out new city cigar bars where he can be found sharing war stories about the good old days of DAS, and reminiscing about what a long, strange, but truly great trip it’s been in the wireless industry. But, knowing Parr, he also won’t stop thinking about tomorrow. In fact, at Connect (X), Len Forkas, who was moderating an early morning panel that included Parr, was quick to point out Parr is “the guy who can talk about the future.”