When one broaches the topic of 5G, it tends to immediately lead into heated debates on the network’s infrastructure, performance, cost, and potential. However, the issue of cellular connectivity has been largely glossed over.
To everyone’s benefit, there wasn’t much up for debate thus far. Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, a cellular device only needs to connect to the network; the rest is up to the operator.
This simple relationship between the end-user and operator has held for decades, but with 5G set to proliferate in Canada, a new question arose: Who’s responsible for establishing a reliable mobile connection in large buildings?
Arie Barendrecht, the chief executive officer for WiredScore, a company that assesses a building’s internet and cellular connectivity qualities, shared the same sentiment.
“It’s really hard to tell based on your visit to the office and your conversation with a real estate broker what the connectivity infrastructure is like,” said Barendrecht. “It’s much easier to tell the views and the access to public transportation and floorplate and the ceiling heights and all that stuff that we can easily see and touch. But what’s happened historically for years, is that businesses are signing leases and building without knowing what the connectivity is like in the building.”
In North America, 4G LTE typically operates on frequencies between 700MHz to 2,500MHz. On the lower end, their wavelengths are usually long enough to penetrate walls and other barriers. Typically, the lower the frequency, the better its penetration ability at the same power. Operating at lower bands ensures stronger signals over long distances and better indoor reception despite the cell towers being farther away.
This trend has been pervasive throughout telecommunications. Unless a building site had special requirements, building owners can generally assume cell reception indoors in populated areas. Dead spots still occur in large campuses like universities, but they can be easily solved with just a few cell relays. In commercial and office buildings, if cell reception isn’t up to par, the responsibility of re-establishing the connection falls on the tenant, not the building owner.
“Landlords haven’t been responsible for providing cellular network [and it] is not in their list of expertise,” said Barendrecht.
But telcos that operated in higher bands have experienced service interruptions in certain sites. Exhibit A is Shaw Communication’s Freedom Mobile (formerly known as Wind Mobile). It operates on 1,700MHz and 2,100MHz frequencies–much higher bands compared to its larger competitors. In its initial stages, Freedom (Wind) had trouble delivering reliable services to insulated areas like entrenched university classrooms. Ironically, it’s also the only telco that provides cell service in the TTC’s subway stations in partnership with BAI.
Whereas the responsibility of establishing a connection had previously fallen between the operator and the tenant, new networks, especially 5G, brought a need for the landlord to install more elaborate infrastructures on-site. Because 5G will eventually operate on ultra-high frequencies (mmWave) extending into 60+ GHz, its penetration capability will be greatly reduced. The issue will be so severe, in fact, that minor environmental factors like rain and fog may attenuate signals over long distances. This phenomenon, called rain fade, has been considered by network engineers and should be eliminated through better signal propagation and placing cell sites closer to one another.
Given the transmission’s fragility, windows, walls, and other basic building materials could present major challenges for 5G signals. Experts are already predicting that 5G networks on higher spectrums will lose connectivity indoors upon rollout. Conversely, the modern workforce is becoming increasingly reliant on mobile computing. A stable cellular connection has been, and always will be, a staple in productivity.
“There’s a high likelihood for another number of years that when we get into our office space, we are no longer going to have access to the 5G network. Historically, the real estate community has wanted to leave a lot of these things up to the tenants to fix or figure out,” said Barendrecht. “And we’re already seeing when tenants are considering office space, they’re asking the question in their lease ‘How will I know that in a 5G world, we will have access to 5G networks?’ Suddenly, the real estate developer owner has a responsibility to provide 5G network within the building because it’s inaccessible from the macro environment.”
Just a few months ago, 5G in Canada seemed ever so distant. That’s no longer the case.
Rogers already launched its 5G network in Toronto and Vancouver this January. The service will become fully operational once 5G handsets arrive in Canada. When a building is designed to endure multiple decades, 5G networks will undoubtedly become prevalent within the span of a multi-year building lease and the properties need to be prepared to embrace its new technologies.
Always-on, always-connected PCs are gaining traction as well. At CES 2020, the Lenovo Yoga 5G laptop launched with native 5G connectivity. Huawei, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others are actively developing their own 5G modems to be used in personal devices.
It’s not just the wireless scene that’s changing; the bar for traditional cable internet is being raised as well. Barendrecht said that access to multiple carriers, network redundancy, and the ever-increasing demand for higher bandwidth have become important facets of renting and leasing. While the tenant-operator relationship still exists, the building needs to have the necessary network infrastructures in place as an intermediary between the two sides. Estate hunters are being increasingly sensitive to these qualities.
“You can imagine for an office tenant signing of a 10-year lease, the worst mistake you could make would be to sign a lease somewhere and then find out that your employees have slow or unreliable internet or their cell phones don’t work,” indicated Barendrecht. “And that [goes] all the way down to business travellers, hotels, or anybody renting industrial warehouses.”
Why not just transition to 4G when highspeed 5G fails? While it’s a likely fallback, he said users will be frustrated out of habit. He pointed out that people are extremely quick to settle into faster technology. Once 5G’s speed becomes ubiquitous and its users complacent, anything slower would induce anxiety.
For existing building owners who’re worried about 5G connectivity, Barendrecht recommends them to start looking for areas where 4G signals are weak in their existing infrastructure. In addition, he recommends buying equipment that is upgradeable to 5G technologies down the road.
“We see people all the time running out and installing a distributed antenna system that solves their 4G problems, but has no upgrade path to 5G on those existing systems. And that that can be a really big pitfall because then you have to basically rip and replace a new system in a couple of years.”
Unfortunately, navigating through the confusing network equipment ecosystem can be challenging for landlords who are trying to “future-proof” their buildings. While up-to-date technology doesn’t necessarily cost more than the equipment they’re designed to replace, the vendor and service provider ecosystem can be confusing.
“You think that you would at least get a cost-benefit if you are choosing something that didn’t have that upgrade path,” Barendrecht said. “But what’s really happening is that landlords don’t have a hard time telling the difference. And that’s why it’s so easy to make a bad decision when thinking about this kind of technology.”
In short, if you’re a landlord, consult with experts to verify network hardware plans in your buildings. Those looking to rent should be extra vigilant when reviewing the network upgrade paths within a candidate site.