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For Building Developers, The Race To 5G Starts Now

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Cellular phones in building

The cell nodes that will bring us 5G are already being strung up on lampposts in neighborhoods across the country. But for most people, daily life is spent indoors, and whether they are downloading the recent video of a child’s high school cheerleading championship or trying to close a deal with a key customer via high-definition video conference, there is an 80% chance they are connecting from inside a building. The problem is, 5G won’t be able to penetrate most exterior walls and windows.

The first 5G mobile networks have launched and will become widespread by the end of 2020, and for every benefit of 5G connectivity — faster download times, greater bandwidth, reduced energy consumption — there is a hurdle for developers and building owners. Tenants are choosing buildings based on their connectivity, and experts say the time for CRE developers to start planning 5G infrastructure is now.

“One of the biggest challenges for 5G wireless will be bringing signal from antennas outside to tenants inside,” said Bill Cune, vice president of network architecture at Corning. “It’s a problem we need to solve today, because whether you’re thinking about it as an amenity, a basic utility or a critical safety measure, that connectivity needs to be there tomorrow.”

Cune said that the higher 3.5 GHz to 6 GHz and millimeter wave frequencies used for 5G are especially susceptible to being blocked or reflected by walls, windows and other common building materials, and that the energy-efficient building materials that are growing more and more popular in construction can be crippling to connectivity. For example, low-E glass — with its reflective coating that reduces heat loss — is notorious for blocking signals.

To combat this blockage, companies are working to develop radio and antenna networks that will bring 5G signals to users inside of buildings, while cellular providers are running trials on 5G performance in large commercial buildings and defining requirements for 5G in-building wireless solutions — all with the goal of mitigating connectivity issues for building tenants and owners.

For Building Developers, The Race To 5G Starts Now

In the meantime, Cune said, stakeholders can focus on the infrastructural preparation they can control — in order to guarantee 5G will work, buildings need to install the right "pipes." The cable networks the world relied on for cellular are no longer up to snuff. For 5G, buildings need optical fiber.

“The beauty of the fiber infrastructure is it’s not a single-purpose infrastructure, and with some copper in the fiber cable, it can deliver all the bandwidth and power you’ll ever need,” Cune said. “We call it optical plumbing. When you design a building, you should be looking toward leveraging this type of infrastructure for your OT networks, your IT networks, your security networks, even the power for your LED lighting. This convergence infrastructure, with fiber and power deep into the floors, has the ability to connect and power most of your tenants’ and building’s networks and applications. The more things you converge, the more you save on infrastructure, labor and energy."

The current standard is to build parallel separate networks for all of these different applications, Cune said. At this point, it is widely held that fiber and power all the way to the radio antenna is the right architecture for future-ready 5G networks. 

"The business case is crystal clear that convergence of all of your building networks costs significantly less up front and in the long run," Cune said. "But while this is catching on, it's not yet common knowledge, and it's often difficult to get organizations to change what they have been doing for the past 20 years."

Corning Director of Market Development John Dulin works with CRE owners and developers who are solving the puzzle of 5G-ready infrastructure. Dulin said the risk for his clients is that not every vendor in the pipeline is up to speed on 5G’s requirements.

“If a building owner or developer calls up an integrator or their local carrier engineer, that engineer might just apply the same tools he applied yesterday,” Dulin said. “So, it’s critical to get multiple sources of input: Hear what the carriers, the integraters and Corning have to say, because especially on a new build, it’s critical to do it right the first time. The expense of going in to re-cable a building that has been buttoned up with walls and beautiful finishes is time-consuming, disruptive to the tenant and costly.”

“If you’re going to spend a million dollars pulling cables, you better be pulling the right cables to the right places," Cune added.

The Corning team agreed that 5G is here and now, but at the same time, it won’t be the norm overnight — it could take years to penetrate consumer devices and the market at large.

“Preparing your building for 5G now puts you ahead of the curve,” Dulin said. “When 5G starts to break into the mainstream, tenants will want to connect. Developers and owners with this infrastructure in place are going to have the most to offer.” 

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Corning. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.