5G Nightmare? It's Closer Than You Think
Birmingham is leading the way in the rollout of 5G mobile technology in the UK, but the property sector could be sleepwalking into disaster if landlords and developers don’t act quickly.
That is the warning from senior figures in the digital sector who say too many in the property industry have not grasped that 5G will not simply appear in their buildings. It takes time, money and a lot of carefully thought-out floorspace to make it work.
5G will allow multiple high-speed data connections, turning the idea of the "smart" home or workplace, and the Internet of Things into a reality.
Birmingham is one of a handful of cities trialling 5G mobile technology, which is already available in a handful of city centre locations. WM5G, a new organisation set up to deliver the UK’s first region-wide 5G test bed, promises big announcements this year.
But according to WiredScore director Thomas McClellan, ignorance about 5G risks is leaving the real estate sector in a mess.
He said that there is “a massive gap in understanding” on what 5G means for property.
“People remember the 4G rollout, which was a sort of clandestine operation that went on behind people’s backs until suddenly one day the 4G symbol appeared at the top right of people’s phones,” McClellan said.
“But 5G is different. There’s more awareness that 5G is coming, and we get asked a lot what landlords and developers have to do, but there is a huge difference between asking and doing something.”
McClellan said that office landlords and developers do not — yet — feel the commercial case for expensive 5G hardware is made. But that will quickly change as the experience of living in 'smart' homes enabled by 5G leads to pressure to create 'smart' 5G-enabled workplaces.
“I think developers are getting onto this because they don’t want tenants to suddenly discover, two years down the line, that they have no 5G signal,” McClellan said. “But the business case for it in commercial premises is still not quite there. I think what we’ll find is that 5G gets installed first in residential property, and people who have 5G at home will begin to demand it at the office.”
However, the pathway to 5G is complex. Anywhere with poor 4G signals will struggle to get any kind of 5G signal, and nobody will get anything much without the appropriate fibre connections and hardware.
“We’ve been using building materials that do not help the 5G signal," McClelland said. "Some developers are aware of the limited range of the 5G signal and the way building materials can interfere with radio reception. And trends that have been very popular, like including a metallic element in glazing in order to ensure heat retention, actually works against radio reception. It can be terrible for radio reception at 4G level, and it will be really hard, really much worse, for 5G. My guess is that only 10-15% of developments are really taking this into account.
“Some developers are slightly wide-eyed when they learn what problems glass creates. It is a problem and a challenge but one that they can sort out.”
Not only must building materials be rethought, but if developers are to avoid extremely expensive 5G retrofits they need to start installing fibre cabling, and propagate it within their buildings.
This means bringing the fibre signal in a secure basement, and that is going to mean some heavy equipment in larger buildings, particul rented residential, McClellan warned.
“You already see renters hanging out of apartment buildings, or on the balcony, trying to make mobile calls on the higher floors. BTR developers are in danger of getting this wrong and they need to be thinking about this now because it's not just about getting fibre into the building, it is about putting it in the right places. It means ducting and a communications room. This is big equipment, you can’t just hide it under the stairs.”
Birmingham’s 5G bosses are aware of the physical barriers to 5G and the need to raise awareness.
“We’ve been working hard with mobile network operators and local authorities to ensure the necessary infrastructure for the technology is present in our region, from fibre-optic cabling to rooftop 5G masts,” West Midlands 5G Non-Exexeucive Director Tracy Westall said.
“Developers, construction companies and real estate businesses are becoming increasingly aware that 5G offers them a significant number of advantages. We’re encouraging these types of organisations to get their new and existing buildings 5G ready. Landlords and developers across the region need to keep thinking of 5G facilitation as normal business planning.”
Birmingham’s big commercial developers are watching closely. Hermes and its development manager Argent are already allocating additional basement floorspace for 5G hardware at the 2M SF Paradise development. That occupiers such as PwC already have advanced data needs and expectations gives them every reason to react.
“The development of 5G represents a potentially significant change in the ways that we communicate and we are preparing the buildings at Paradise to ensure that they are able to take advantage of this landmark technological advancement," Paradise Development Manager Ross Fittall said. "We are building in additional space in basement areas to allow for 5G servers, potentially supported by mobile phone booster systems if required.
“We are having broader conversations about ‘smart’ buildings, which further enhance the intelligent systems already incorporated into the building management systems such as energy monitoring, lighting control, access control and lift management.”
5G could be a dream come true. But if the property industry does not begin to adjust to it now, it might easily turn into a costly nightmare.