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Buildings are Finding Ways to Incorporate 5G Into Their IoT Networks

The long-awaited 5G technology is finally coming. Smartphone shipments are expected to account for more than 40 percent of global smartphone volume in 2021 and grow to 69 percent in 2025. But consumer benefits pale in value when compared to the promise of 5G in a business context.

With it, 5G will bring changes to our buildings as well. The advantages of buildings enabled by smart technology have been recognized for quite some time. But even just a decade ago, the prospect of retrofitting existing buildings with smart building technology seemed daunting. In addition to their excessive cost, the sensors needed to make a building intelligent lacked at least four critical enabling technologies that prevented most organizations from adopting them widely: battery life, computing power, connectivity options, and bandwidth. 

With the arrival of more IoT devices specifically designed for buildings about midway through the last decade, the movement to fit out older buildings began to gain momentum. Many of the inhibitors to retrofitting facilities were also removed including what is, for all intents and purposes, unlimited computing power and storage in the cloud. This dramatically increased battery efficiency and life, and a variety of connectivity options including Wi-Fi, cellular, ZigBee, and Bluetooth. As we approach the 5G era it is important to understand the difference between this generation of wireless connectivity and how it will change the way that buildings function. 

The limitations of 4G LTE

One of the most common and flexible types of device connectivity is cellular. This has long been the preferred choice when organizations want to connect their IoT devices to the cloud, but do not want to place these devices on their corporate networks using cables or Wi-Fi. Until recently, 4G LTE was the premium mobile communications standard globally and offered the best option for connecting IoT devices to the cloud using cellular protocols. But even though 4G was far superior to 3G in terms of speed, it still imposed practical limits on how much data could be transmitted and how many individual devices could be connected.

In many use cases, a 4G LTE network could be overwhelmed, like when it’s tracking the real-time movement of hundreds of occupants through facilities, location and performance reporting of thousands of pieces of equipment, real-time interaction from mobile devices with building systems and controls. If you have ever attended a large conference, sporting game, or concert, you most likely have experienced the frustrating limit to the number of smartphones that can successfully connect to the 4G network. Now, as the distributed, hybrid workforce gains steam, 75% of people believe reliable broadband connectivity must dramatically improve to fully support hybrid work

5G bandwidth makes IoT possible

5G promises to solve broadband access and coverage problems by greatly increasing the number of connected devices in a building and could revolutionize and accelerate the market for smart building technologies in our post-pandemic workplace. Unlike 4G, 5G is a unified platform designed to support a 100x increase in traffic capacity with a 10x decrease in end-to-end latency so that massive IoT, such as mobile phones and building systems, will be nearly ubiquitous and enable the realization of completely connected smart buildings. 

And, because it can natively support all spectrum types and bands, with the added bonus of being able to optimize in real-time which spectrum is to be used, 5G also provides a wide range of deployment models (from traditional macro-cells to hotspots), and new ways to interconnect (such as device-to-device and multi-hop mesh). This means, as more organizations reassess their real estate needs and look at smart ways to adopt hybrid work models that match how their workplaces are actually being used, 5G can more broadly deploy sensors that register and share data nearly instantaneously from any node on the network – whether it be connected HVAC systems in the office to employee badges to home-office desks the company buys for remote employees. 

Applying 5G-enabled IoT in commercial buildings

After working with cloud and desktop technologies for more than two decades, specifically, ones created for the building industry, I know all too well that migrating to a new software platform can be a major undertaking but the end results outweigh the initial struggle in getting there. Taking advantage of all that 5G offers will be no different. It’ll take careful planning as well as an understanding of its availability. Availability not only applies to the location of your existing facilities but also applies to whether or not various tech solutions that you might employ in your facilities actually support 5G. 5G is rapidly rolling out to most major metropolitan areas nationwide in the US, but rural areas as well as organizations that have geographically dispersed facilities including in other countries will most likely have a challenge standardizing in the near term.  

Many PropTech solutions currently installed most likely have been optimized to transfer only small amounts of data at slower intervals than what can be supported by 5G. This could mean that some of these solutions will not experience increased performance from a 5G network due to the technical limitations of the existing hardware itself. In many cases, existing infrastructure such as routers will also need to be replaced that only currently support 4G. A move to 5G will require careful planning and collaboration between your facilities’ organization and most likely your IT department at the corporate level as well as within your local facilities.  

First, collaboration usually starts by convincing the IT team that the net outcome will be beneficial for them, like explaining how moving IoT devices from wired and wireless networks to cellular networks will reduce traffic on internal infrastructure. Increased bandwidth will also create less perceived downtime for users of these devices, which will likely result in less use of IT support resources. As part of your transition plan, it’s advised to also use this time to review your voice over internet protocol (VoIP), data management, and security policies. It is important to work with your local carrier to understand their specific 5G tower migrations plans in order to ensure the timing of a perceived migration is anchored in maximum uptime.

We’ve seen the smart building market evolving rapidly over the past few years, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the availability of new technology for buildings like sensors for detecting workplace utilization and occupancy rates, indoor air quality (IAQ), and building equipment monitoring. Now, between the added pressures for landlords and property owners to meet new sustainability requirements combined with organizations adopting new work models amid The Great Resignation, measuring building performance with quality, accurate data will be key to understanding what, when and where is working well and needs to be improved. To get there, I expect to see more organizations embracing all of the capabilities enabled by 5G networks. It’s truly the final catalyst for the implementation of smart buildings.

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