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Improving 5G Connectivity is the Building Sector’s Burden

No, you’re not crazy. Your cell phone signal actually has been getting worse lately. Telecoms are rolling out the fifth and fastest mobile network generation yet, but they’re running into a major problem: buildings. Sustainability and connectivity improvements are working in opposite directions, degrading 5G signal quality throughout the structures that facilitate modern life and tasking building both owners and tenants with finding solutions. 

5G mobile networks are up to twenty times faster than its 4G LTE predecessor. That speed opens a world of new opportunities, the problem is 5G networks are blocked by a variety of building materials. Cell phone signals are stronger closer to the source and weaken over distance. Obstructions between the signal and receiver degrade the connection even further. When you’re outside, there are usually enough signals bouncing around to make up the difference, but indoors the obstruction of the building is hard to overcome. That’s a major problem considering some estimate 80 percent of all mobile calls happen indoors. 

Our current 4G networks work with radio frequencies below 6 gigahertz (GHz), 5G uses higher frequencies with shorter wavelengths around 30 gigahertz. There are advantages to these higher frequencies, they are able to move more data, have less interference, and give a more precise sense of the direction of the source. But there are downsides, too. Not only do the 26, 27, and 28 GHz frequency bands degrade faster than lower friendlies over the same distance, they also struggle to penetrate some of the most common building materials. 

The size of buildings also plays a major factor. Higher frequencies bringing us 5G connectivity don’t travel as far, so they can have a hard time reaching higher floors of buildings. Connectivity over three stories is spotty unless a nearby rooftop antenna is aimed downward to provide coverage, sometimes it takes several antennas. “Obtaining reliable mobile connectivity in large buildings has been a challenge historically and is exacerbated with the rollout of 5G,” Global Director of Operations at WiredScore John Meko said. “The 5G signals have a more difficult time penetrating through glass and steel than previous generations of mobile, and building owners/tenants are being tasked with solving the problem.”

Connectivity issues are already bad but recent pushes for building-wide energy efficiency are making them worse. Making an HVAC system operate more efficiently means keeping the air in through better insulation, but often that means keeping 5G signals out. On the low end of signal disruption, you have materials like drywall and fiberglass insulation. On the high end, you have steel, concrete, and plaster. Low emissivity glass windows minimize ultraviolet and infrared light, making them great for efficiency but terrible for 5G connectivity and even worse if the glass is double or triple-paned. And a signal isn’t just going through glass. Scrolling Instagram on your phone from the restroom, the signal is passing through several layers of steel, concrete, glass, and other materials, depending on the building. Each degrades the signal that much more.  

That’s why it’s crucial for all building owners and asset managers to understand mobile connectivity in their buildings. Conducting a radio frequency scan of the buildings only costs a few thousand dollars but can pinpoint connectivity issues to help stakeholders make informed decisions on where they need to boost signals. Most indoor coverage relies on distributed antenna systems (DAS) or small cell solutions. It may seem backward but it’s the responsibility of the building owner to build out the telecoms’ own network. The telecom carrier will get their signal to your building, but overcoming obstacles inside the building is unique to each asset, creating problems telecoms can’t solve at scale. 

Owners can help by offloading some of the signal demand onto building-wide WiFi, but that’s only part of the solution. Improving connectivity in buildings isn’t a technical question but one centered around cost. Improving signals in every building is expensive and both the building owner and telecom benefit from a better connection, so how should the cost be split? Bringing the parties together to have productive conversations on cost-sharing is proving to be a bigger problem than developing the technology itself because the real estate sector and telecommunications sector rarely speak the same language. Buildings don’t have to just accommodate one signal, but several. Tenants may use different mobile carriers, each demanding their network be improved over the others. 

“It’s about finding the right solution and right business model for your asset,” Meko said. “These improvements can be paid for out of operating expense or treated as a capital improvement, depending on the situation in the building.” The problem is that telecoms are not in the business of improving indoor connectivity, outside of a few cases where carriers make investments in a building occupied by a large corporate client with existing contracts. 

Owners are left with three basic options: owner-funded capital project, an owner-funded op-ex, or solution funded by a third party. Owner-funded projects have a major upside for control and leverage but are risky and expensive as there are no guarantees carriers join. Owners can minimize upfront costs by working with a DAS company that covers the cost of installation, passing the operational cost onto tenants, and paying back the initial investment over a 10-year term but pass-throughs may damage tenant relationships and end up costing more than a full-fledged capital project. Distributed antenna solutions can accommodate several carriers. A solution funded by a third party takes control away from the landlord but frees them from funding. “On the solution side there are a host of commercial options available for building owners and end-users designed to essentially distribute signals throughout the building,” Meko continued. “These solutions are becoming increasingly more agile and attainable for buildings to implement, but are still $1-$2 per square foot depending on the technology.

Carrier-funded improvements are the best option but also the rarest. A building has to be uniquely valuable to the carrier but there’s no way for a building owner to know without seeing their proprietary network coverage maps. Carrier-funded improvements are revenue generators. Adding a small cell 5G antenna could turn a basic light pole into a source of recurring income. The telecom covers the cost of installation and kicks back a couple of thousand a month to the owner. The money may not be much compared to rent rolls, but providing connectivity for tenants provides its own value.

The most important thing for building owners and asset managers to understand is that this is their problem to solve. Telecoms will not be knocking on your door to improve their signal in your building except in rare cases. Degrading 5G connectivity in buildings is a problem that must be solved by the building sector itself. Due diligence has long included checking mobile connectivity in a space before signing the lease. If prospective tenants don’t like what they see, they blame the building, not the carrier, and move on to the next tour. Improving 5G connections benefits the owner of the building by providing better coverage for tenants and building new networks that act as the backbone of smart building applications and can often be simpler and cheaper than you might think. Financial and technical solutions are available for owners serious about connectivity. Those that aren’t may soon find themselves asking a familiar, if not a bit overplayed question: “Can you hear me now?”

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