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Getting smart about connected buildings  
by Martha DeGrasse 6/16/21

From stadiums to hospitals to factories, demand for wireless connectivity is driving deployments of millimeter wave small cells. These radios transmit large amounts of data fast but not far, making them ideal for indoor deployments. And mmWave connections are not just for humans. TI has used the technology for building automation sensors, promoting the technology as a way to create HVAC, surveillance and lighting systems that only power on when needed. Ericsson, Samsung and AT&T are all testing 5G connections in smart factories, and in Los Angeles the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine is using mmWave to connect digital bracelets worn by patients, as well as sound and lighting systems in the building. 

 

The idea of a smart building isn’t new, but building systems haven’t typically shared networks with humans. Now, that may be starting to change. At the Ellison Institute, traditional calls and text messages won’t use the mmWave network, but patients and doctors will wear sensors that connect to the network. 

 

CBRS networks are also likely to support both buildings and people. Crown Castle and New York’s Rudin Management are working together to install a CBRS network in the Park Avenue skyscraper that houses the NFL headquarters, and the partners know that eventually smartphones will be able to connect to the network just as building equipment does now. For Crown Castle that will be good news because the carriers can become new tenants for its infrastructure. 

 

The fact that the same networks can potentially support smart buildings and mobile broadband could open up new possibilities for bridging the digital divide. While office tenants on Park Avenue can set climate control preferences on their smartphones, their neighbors just a few miles away can’t get online to do their homework. According to New York fiber provider ZenFi Networks, as many as 22 per cent of New Yorkers are without broadband access, either because they don’t have a connection or lack an adequate device. 

 

Extending broadband to those who need it most is costly, even in a dense urban environment like New York. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated that ISPs in the state offer $15 a month broadband to low-income households, the providers promptly sued to block the order. This week a district court judge issued a preliminary injunction, so the order hasn’t taken effect.

 

Service providers might find it easier to discount their services for low-income families if they had other ways to monetize their networks. As the smart building ecosystem evolves, both fiber and cellular in-building networks may be able to support in-building IoT devices along with mobile broadband.

 

Smart building infrastructure has the potential to drive big cost savings for residential building owners because it reduces energy consumption. This is particularly true when the speed and agility of wireless networks is coupled with smart building technology. For example, Ericsson recently noted that its 5G network at a Texas factory cut energy consumption by 25 per cent and wastewater consumption by 75 per cent. Those kinds of numbers are likely to incent building owners to invest in connectivity solutions, and as more buildings get connected, one part of the digital divide could get smaller. Another part of the digital divide is affordability, but if service providers can monetize their networks through smart building solutions, some may be able to charge less for mobile broadband.