Making buildings smarter could force some aesthetic trade-offs as the 5G rollout gets underway in commercial real estate. Mid-band and high-band spectrum carrying the next generation of digital telecommunications will need a boost from a proliferation of new antennas to infiltrate the dense structure and floorplan configurations of typical office and multi-residential towers.
Although distributed antenna systems (DAS) are already a staple of in-building wireless networks, they’re conveying data that’s riding on more invasive waves in the low band of the spectrum. Extra support will be needed when 5G services begin arriving via meeker travellers. Industry insiders are now tagging a potential clutter of small-cell antennas among the many factors to consider in 5G feasibility studies and implementation strategies.
“The higher spectrums don’t penetrate the buildings very well, especially with the new glass that’s used for energy efficiency. It reflects the radiofrequency signals. So carriers are going to have to deploy in-building networks that will be able to support 5G,” Maria Andonovsky, director of operational excellence with BentallGreenOak, noted during a webinar at the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada’s recent virtual annual conference. “How is that going to look visually in the building? I don’t think owners want these antennas splattered throughout the building. If there are multiple carriers in the building, aesthetics will be a major issue.”
Other properties of the mid and high bands — which are at various stages of regulatory release for telecom carriers’ use — are more optimally suited for 5G. Also participating in the webinar, Peter Leathley, director of technology strategy with Telus, stressed that speed, capacity and security are critical for the scale of smart, integrated technology it’s envisioned 5G will enable. Ultimately, that includes up to a million connected devices per square kilometre with consistently instantaneous timing between transmission and reception of data — a relay known as latency — to serve up the applications and assurance for a range of real-time analysis and response aligned with a smart future.
“Low latency is a must for future cloud networks and the current networks can’t support very low latency requirements,” Leathley said. “Another major consideration is cybersecurity. When millions of devices are connected wirelessly, the current networks cannot process the large amount of encrypted data at a fast enough rate.”
No rush to early adoption
For now, 5G rollout is at early stages and mostly still keeping company with 4G on the low band of the spectrum. Andonovsky and Leathley sketched out some issues for owners/managers to think about in advance of the looming developments, with Leathley highlighting the upside of the promised transformative change and Andonovsky examining some of the practicalities of being an early adopter.
From an operational perspective, 5G is a means to take building automation, monitoring and controls to an enhanced level, opening up new predictive smart technologies like digital twin. From a market competitiveness perspective, Leathley suggests it’s an amenity than can underpin higher rental rates and increased asset value.
“We need smart buildings because demands on the built environment are changing. We need our buildings to be more sustainable, safer and competitive,” he submitted. “These are additive technologies that produce more capabilities as they go. We’re going to be talking about maybe changing how you do parking or changing how you do facilities management or bringing augmented reality capabilities to your tenants — working with you to change how people are using the office in a post-COVID environment.”
However, those should all be viewed as investments to be made on top of initial 5G implementation.
“Connectivity is one component of the costs,” Leathley reiterated. “You’ve got the physical infrastructure, the digital infrastructure in your building that’s really critical, but, beyond that, you have platforms and applications that leverage the network and those are other costs to consider.”
Andonovsky advises that prudent owners/managers will want to address everything from cost-sharing arrangements to cybersecurity vulnerabilities to the impact on the integrity of roof membranes before making a commitment. Consulting with tenants and other stakeholders will be key to forecasting demand for services, understanding operational requirements and calculating potential returns on investment. Given 5G’s current nascent stage, she deems there is time for thorough diligence and no real reason just yet to be the industry pioneer.
“We really just experience 5G (currently) where the carriers have deployed their cell sites and picocells and it seems like the deployment focus right now is in venues such as stadiums and malls where there are a lot more users,” she observed. “With commercial office buildings, there are concerns about being able to obtain 5G due to the spectrums being used and the amount of antennas that will need to be installed in the buildings. I believe owners will need to wait and watch and make their decisions based on cases that come to light over time.”
Building owners call for neutral distributed antenna systems
For commercial buildings owners/managers, prospects for a neutral or “agnostic” DAS could be a large piece of the decision-making puzzle. This would ensure that the potential clutter of antennas is minimized as all carriers use the same system, and would give landlords and tenants more flexibility in their dealings with carriers.
“It’s an ongoing conversation between building owners and the major telcos,” Andonovsky reported. “I don’t know that we’ve come up with a solution yet, but I think it’s something that we all want to work towards and it would be more efficient in the buildings to have that.”
Leathley affirmed that Telus is ensuring DAS are 5G-ready where they are newly installed. As mid-band spectrum becomes available, small-cell antennas can be added to meet system requirements, and they won’t necessarily look like the 4G-related antennas that Andonovsky likens to the size and shape of pizza boxes.
“We’re talking about an increased number of antennas, closer to people, as you get into that mid and high band,” Leathley said. “This will be done with equipment that is smaller and integrates more seamlessly into existing space.”
Nevertheless, any kind of retrofit can be cumbersome in older buildings that weren’t designed to accommodate modern telecommunications. “Some older buildings don’t have conduit or places to pull cable that are necessary for these antennas so that can be a challenge,” he acknowledged.
“Undertaking an audit of your existing buildings, understanding the systems you have in place, and some of the details around space for equipment and accessibility to conduit, are really good steps to get ready for deployment of small cells and 5G technology,” Leathley added.
Andonovsky concurs those steps have been part of her company’s strategic efforts to determine how 5G will fit into its operational and asset management agendas. She predicts commercial real estate owners/managers will approach 5G investment decisions in their customary manner.
“Owners embrace technology when they understand the impact to net operating income, the value improvement to the property and that the risks have all been addressed,” she said.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.