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October 2010
Defeating Dropped Calls
By Heather Head

     If you’ve ever missed an important sales call because you stepped indoors, then the guys at Harris Communications may very well be heroes to you. Simply put, they make cell phones work in buildings.

     The concept is straightforward. An outdoor antenna collects signals from any or all cellular carriers. A system of cables carries the signals throughout the inside of the building and distributes them to repeaters. A correctly designed system results in cell phone coverage in even the tightest interior spaces.

     The same technologies can enhance public safety through code-specific repeater systems that ensure First Responders can communicate inside buildings. Eliminating the need for safety workers to access location-specific phones and radios, a well-designed system ensures constant connectivity during a crisis.

     Of course, correct design can be as complex as the buildings they are intended for, and sorting through manufacturers to ensure quality and reliability is a job for experts. Many companies have been disappointed when an expensive cell phone enhancement project resulted in dead zones, weak signals, and down time.

     That’s where Harris Communications comes in. With over 35 years’ combined experience in the industry and an unparalleled depth of industry expertise, they provide turnkey systems, non-invasive integration, FCC-approved equipment, annual testing, maintenance contracts, and only tested and proven equipment integrated into expertly designed systems. They never contract out their work, so customers always know who to contact with questions and concerns.

     In short, Harris Communications customers can be confident that their cell phone enhancement project will do what they expect it to do without hassle.


Signals for Growth

     It all began, ironically, in the aftermath of a tragedy that might have been ameliorated by the very technologies Harris Communications now provides. It was January 2002. The American economy was floundering after the terrorist attacks the previous September, and the company Pete Esposito was pulling phone cables for was one of many to go under.

     As it happened, Esposito picked up some work installing voice and data network cabling for Pedulla Trucking, Excavating & Paving’s office. When the customer asked Esposito if he could also make his cell phone work inside, Esposito had no idea. But he did some research, found a solution, implemented it, and had a more than satisfied customer. It also proved to be a gold mine—an emerging technology that would soon be in heavy demand.

     Although his company would grow to be one of the country’s top independent providers of commercial wireless booster systems, Esposito started small. He drove to construction sites and knocked on job site trailer doors. “Do you want your cell phones to work inside the trailer?” he’d ask.

     They were small jobs, but it started a chain reaction. Building owners and managers would attend construction meetings inside the trailers and when their phones would ring, they’d ask, “How come it works in here, but not inside my building?” The construction crew would tell them: Harris Communications.

     It didn’t take long for the company to get its first high-profile opportunity. The postal facility in Trenton, N.J., was undergoing $130 million worth of decontamination and renovation after the 2001 anthrax attacks that infected at least 22 people and killed five. The renovation effort included a system to ensure workers could use their cell phones inside the building. Harris Communications provided that system.

     That job led to more in the D.C. area, and soon Esposito had the means to stop pulling voice and data cables and focus exclusively on cell phone enhancement systems, and to develop Harris Communications as a leading brand.

     Meanwhile, Jim McEwen was an equity partner in a company that provided cabling supplies for Harris Communications. McEwen was intrigued by Esposito’s business, and liked his vision and passion. Esposito liked McEwen’s customer service: “I was not a major customer, but Jim always treated me like I was. That was the customer service experience I wanted my customers to get, too.”

     One day McEwen joked that he would join Harris Communications when he retired. Esposito retorted, “Why wait?”

     Between mergers and acquisitions, McEwen’s corporate career had taken him as far as he cared to go in that direction, and he was ready for something new and exciting. He sat with Esposito and went over the books and their visions for the business, and saw that he could relieve Esposito of his inside responsibilties of book work, sales and marketing, so Esposito could focus on systems and installation.


Conducting Business

     In 2007, the two joined forces. The result was a business that exploded over the next year. Harris Communications installed systems in the Charlotte IKEA, the Robert Johnson Wood Hospital in New Brunswick, the Stonewall Jackson Resort in West Virginia, the Renown Medical Center in Nevada, and many more around the country. Jobs ranged from massive (nearly two-million-square-foot buildings to a 12-story hotel in New York City) to minuscule (a church’s back office in Charlotte).

     Esposito and McEwen operate on the philosophy of treating each customer, regardless of size, with the same attention and care, and providing the highest quality products and service available. While much of their business arrives through contractors, they have developed their own reputation and brand. As a result, 15 to 20 percent of their business comes from referrals, and their customers are universally delighted.

     “Walking through a building after we’ve put in a system is gratifying,” says Esposito. “When we ask people to check their cell phones, they’re so grateful when they see their signal and relieved that their customers’ calls and e-mails can reach them anywhere in the building. That positivity comes back to us.”

     Despite the growing market and good business practices, Harris Communications was hit hard by the current recession. “We had a great year in 2007-08,” says McEwen. “Everything was starting to really gel. Then it was like somebody had flipped a switch—pop—and the big crash happened.”

     In November 2008, the company had just closed a big deal with a GE headquarters. Esposito was onsite with the client collecting the final paperwork and performing preliminary work. McEwen was waiting by the fax machine for the contract when the phone rang. On the other end, their customer contact was nearly in tears. “Jim,” he said, “our CFO said to stop. It’s not just you—we’re stopping everything.”

     “The world was crashing,” remembers McEwen. “In the next 10 days, we lost four contracts just like that. Bam. It just stopped.” Sales dropped 65 percent the following year.

     Esposito had started the company during rough economic times, and McEwen had weathered his fair share in other companies and recessions “We did all the things good business owners do,” says McEwen with a shrug. “We trimmed down, we tightened up, we took less salary, and we pulled it together.”

     That’s not to say they didn’t have plenty of hard conversations and gut-wrenching decisions. They lost staff, and sometimes wondered whether they would pull through. But they hung on, and in 2009 someone switched the light back on.

     “Almost to the day, certainly the week, the phone rang from that same division of GE,” remembers McEwen. “Three weeks later we did the job. That was the start, and ever since then, our business has been trending upward.”


A Boost for Business

     Harris Communications continues to lead in a field that just keeps growing. Esposito has continuously invested in understanding the manufacturers’ products and offering only the highest quality. He can customize any project to fit a budget while meeting the customer’s needs.

     Their systems integrate seamlessly with existing infrastructure and installation times vary from a few days to a few weeks. They can be installed during construction or after. Their systems currently operate in corporate, manufacturing, healthcare, government, public safety, higher education, hospitality, retail, and utilities applications.

     Although it represents a relatively small slice of the business, the company also installs residential systems for big names, such as the Hilton family residence in Bel Air, Calif., and the Virginia home of Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. They once made a middle Eastern prince’s cell phones work inside his 140,000-square-foot California mansion.

     If systems like Harris Communications works with now had been installed in the World Trade Center before the 9/11 attacks, it’s possible many lives might have been saved. Rescue workers could have communicated effectively during evacuation efforts, and could have made better informed on-the-spot decisions.

     Unfortunately, the technology barely existed at that time. But Esposito and McEwen expect the demand to grow as cell phone service inside buildings becomes a standard utility. Esposito says that many prospective tenants expect wireless connectivity as part of their leases now, and even prospective homeowners often won’t purchase if their cell phones don’t work inside.

     Furthermore, growth in green building technologies increases the demand for repeater systems. Esposito explains that the same materials that improve insulation and block UV rays, such as E-glass windows and aluminum foil-covered wall insulation, also block cell phone signals.

     At the same time that building materials are doing a better job of blocking cell signals, cell signals are doing a worse job of penetrating. In order to carry the larger bandwidths required by today’s exploding data transmission needs, cell phone carriers are increasingly using higher frequencies, commonly termed 3G and 4G.

     Although they can carry more information, the higher frequencies don’t travel as well. This is why an AM/FM radio which operates on the lower frequencies may pick up signals in the depths of an unimproved basement where a 4G cell phone is completely helpless.

      The convergence of increasing dependence on wireless communications, more use of green materials, and greater need for bandwidth results in a market that Esposito and McEwen are well poised to grab. While many companies are still taking a deep breath after the economic woes of 2008-09, Harris Communications expects to begin hiring soon. In two months they’ made enough sales to carry them through several sales cycles, and the phones are still ringing.

     While no one can be sure what turns technology will take in the next few years, Esposito and McEwen expect Harris Communications to grow fast with increasing demand. They see wireless communication inside buildings as becoming a basic utility, while first responder repeater systems become a fundamental requirement for public safety.

     In the meantime, their favorite part of the work is when they get to be heroes for office personnel, sales and executives who no longer have to miss important phone calls, and for citizens and emergency responders whose safety and effectiveness is enhanced by the ability to communicate quickly and effectively no matter where they are located.



Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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