Before we start, let me ask you a question: look around and tell me what kind of things that you see can be connected to the internet? A smartphone? A smartwatch? What about a city? Or maybe a building?
In an era when everything is smart and generates data and insights, your home, workplace, or factory have also joined the club of the connected things. And even though they are still scratching the surface of their capabilities, the future of places is about to change.
This article is based on the Tech 2030 podcast episode “Here Comes the Connected Building.” Click here to listen
Imagining a smart building is nothing new. Kids growing up in the 1960s and 1980s will probably recall the Jetsons, a futuristic cartoon sitcom in which everything, from bed to car, was connected and ready to function as ordered.
In 1983, the world’s first “intelligent building” was completed in Hartford, Connecticut. Under the name of Cityplace, it was meant to serve as the first construction to test the capabilities of a connected system.
Almost four decades later, Rich Berliner, Founder of Fifth Gen Media, which publishes the Connected Real Estate Magazine, says that people are still debating what a smart building really is.
“I’ve been to a million conferences, small ones, big ones, had smart building panels. And I think everybody’s definition is different. A smart building, in my judgment, has fibre deep into the structure and high up into the building. It has connections to that fibre and their proptech [property technology] uses, like tenant amenity platforms – there are uses that people have for this fibre that connect you to these things.”
“But overall, I think lots of people either focus on building management systems or on having fibre in the building and having the building be smart. A lot of people have the definition that if the building has a building management system, that’s intelligent and may have window glass connected to the internet… I mean, there are a lot of definitions that you could put on to that.”
While there might not be one common definition for the term smart building, the real estate industry is trying to keep up with the latest advancements in communications technology, namely the indoors coverage made possible by the mobile internet and the Wi-Fi. Yet, companies and buildings still lag behind in key factors.
“Real Estate typically is last to the party on technology and innovation. Real estate is a component that says ‘oh, you know, we’re trying to appeal to the tenants’ needs’, but they’ve missed that technology piece. They missed that every pocket or purse has a device or devices with that person each day,” said Luke Lucas, Senior Manager 5G SMART and Indoor Coverage at T-Mobile during the panel “The Future of 5G / 6G for Buildings”, organized by the Real Estate Magazine in April 2021.
The 5G Coverage Issue
So right now, we’re not getting those Jetsons-like features in a building we visit or live in. Why not? What does it take to get there, or at least evolve to the next level?
There are some reasons why the Real Estate industry is just scratching the surface of its capabilities. The first one is that, well, landlords and facilities owners really don’t have a clear vision of where to go or what to do. This is especially true when 5G enters the conversation.
“I can’t figure out right now what 5G is doing for building owners,” said Berliner. “The future will hold applications that are the future of 5G, but I’m not sure I’ve figured out exactly what those things are yet.”
The second possible reason is the lack of what Rich calls the “killer app for the Real Estate industry”. So far, the 5G use cases for building owners revolve around Virtual and Augmented Reality and the ability to see what you’re buying without being actually there, a helpful tool if you’re amid a Covid-19 pandemic.
However, to use such tools you have to have bandwidth. The 5G coverage has just started to grow in the US and Europe, while there are countries without any 5G signal. Even LTE connectivity can be a problem, especially in suburban or rural areas.
“You must remember that 80% of calls and data are initiated indoors, and we don’t have 5G coverage indoors yet in the US. So if we start getting more and more coverage indoors in the US, that will really help to make this seem like it’s going to be more ubiquitous and it’s coming soon. I think the C-band auction and all the money that carriers spent on it, and the seriousness which with they’re taking the rollout of the C-band platform now in the US, is going to make a huge difference.
“But I think that’s still a little way off. We have to look at these things as probably a 10-year cycle. I don’t think anything we’re going to do will make 5G a two-year or three-year cycle because it takes ten years for these things to mature in our country and around the world.”
Another aspect to take into consideration is that, according to Rich, carriers haven’t embraced private networks solutions at a pace that could be beneficial to building owners or landlords.
At the end of the day, the business model is another obstacle for the Real Estate sector to get to the next level of connectivity. For example, the most common way for a Real Estate owner to get the carrier’s attention is simply by being huge.
“Your building is so important that the carriers, even though they’ve spent $80 or $90 billion on frequency from the government here in the US, will get involved and pay for the installation in that building. Those installations in this day and age are few and far between. The carriers are focused on their outdoor installation, on their building towers,” said Berliner.
The Smart Building of Today
But not everything is lost. Several factories have been employing Artificial Intelligence in their facilities. First, they apply high-end software to create digital replicas of the building’s components – let’s say, a Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning, or “HVAC” system for short. Second, the software pulls, analyses and tests the data on the digital twin, suggesting solutions to optimize the HVAC system performance. Last, the software runs the chosen solution on the actual HVAC system.
But let’s think about what’s happening inside the buildings we can actually visit or use. What’s being done at those places?
“New York City and some other cities have passed laws saying that you must reduce your carbon footprint. So, you’ve got a multitude of things going on,” Berliner explained. “Let’s say we have one tenant who likes to keep the air conditioning down at 60 degrees all night and run it.”
“We’re trying to reduce the carbon footprint of our building, and this one tenant just refuses to cut down their air conditioning use. Well, using this new private LTE system and some software that exists out there in the marketplace, you can now cut your carbon footprint and prove it. That’s a killer app that’s going to show itself in the near future.”
“The other one is, I’m going to have a private network in my building that I can use to have tenants run their networks to use all kinds of different systems on and put aside things like WiFi and use this private LTE network to improve communications, to improve the way they run their buildings and to be able to reduce their carbon footprint overall.”
Other positive experiences have occurred in places like Arizona State University. Imagine this scene: you’re a student and you’re reading a book outdoors on campus. Suddenly, you see a white four-wheel robot with a reflecting flag passing by you, delivering food. That’s actually happening today.
What the Future Has in Store
Examples like these could become more and more frequent in the future. One key enabler for that may be the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS. It’s a band of spectrum from 3.5GHz to 3.7GHz that the FCC has allocated for three tiers: incumbent access, priority access, and General Authorized Access. The latter two, according to the FCC, “is licensed-by-rule to permit open, flexible access to the band for the widest possible group of potential users.”
“This CBRS, and private LTE [networks] that are being rolled out are much less expensive, and it is the opportunity for you to have a non-carrier solution in your building. If the carriers don’t want to cooperate and don’t want to participate, you can still roll it out,” said Berliner.
“You can still put it in your building. You can still let your tenants use it. You can still use it to show carbon reduction. But it’s not going to cost you the fortune that a full 5G installation in your building would. It’s going to be less expensive and it’s going to get you where you want.”
“There are still some things that need to be worked out, and one of them is how do you connect with the carriers? In this day and age, the carriers have by and large not embraced the move to CBRS and letting you connect to their network. There are still issues to be worked out, but the good news is that you have frequency for landlords, it is free to use in your building.”
“The government in the US has set this up as a free opportunity for you to use this. I would think that taking the money and effort to put a full 5G network in a commercial building at this point is something people are still looking at, but they are looking at private LTE with a free set of frequencies, with a good portion of the installation being a lot less expensive. That’s a great alternative to the necessity to put 5G everywhere in a building at great expense.”
So, where are we going from here? Let’s says carriers embrace the CBRS or strengthen their efforts on indoor cellular networks, 5G gets more coverage, and building owners come up with a clear vision of how to better use the power of connectivity inside their facilities. What’s in store for the future of the Real Estate industry?
“That’s a good question. I think you’ll be talking about a smart building that will absolutely have a communications backbone heavily weighted towards fiber with either private LTE or a full 5G network in it. It’ll use all sorts of different proptech advancements, proptech software, proptech equipment, proptech gear, proptech-you-name-it,” Rich Berliner foresees.
“And it will be a building that will mimic what you’re doing with your home. You’ll have a ‘Ring’ doorbell, Alexa, cameras – you’ll have all sorts of things in your building. There’s a really interesting little company I ran across a number of years ago that makes a leak detection technology. So that if your boilers or your water heaters in the basement start to leak, you get an immediate message. It could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in not flooding your basement or flooding your building. You’ll even get to the point where you’ve got pool heaters and pools that can contact you if there are leaks or if they’re not working properly.”
“So we’ll take those technologies. Those are the kinds of things that I think will turn buildings smart. And the smarter the equipment, the smarter the software and the smarter the things we put in, the smarter the building will be considered,” Berliner said.