5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity, has created a lot of buzz around the commercial real estate industry. However, there are more questions than answers. Ed Knapp, Chief Technology Officer at American Tower, recently spoke with Rich Berliner, Connected Real Estate Magazine Chief Executive Officer and Publisher, to answer some of these questions.
Knapp and Berliner discuss the fifth generation of wireless and its impact on the industry, who is poised to benefit most, how easy it will be for commercial real estate owners to upgrade, the technology that will make a 5G investment worthwhile for landlords, and more.
Connected Real Estate (CRE): How do you see the 5G rollout and whom do you think benefits first from the initial round of discussions and rollout?
Ed Knapp (EK): 5G is an exciting opportunity for the industry. All wireless service providers will see benefits of improved network resiliency and software flexibility, with higher speeds and lower latency. The industry is trying to drive key performance parameters, including those needed to move beyond smartphones, for connecting people to new devices.
5G is really about connecting machines to the cloud in the future, as much as it is about connecting people today. Eventually we’ll see greater demand from machine-to-machine communications. People will continue to consume bandwidth, especially while streaming video. Wireless providers will see these trends and react to support new opportunities, as they continue to roll out nationwide networks.
CRE: Who do you think will be the first beneficiaries of 5G services, as wireless providers decide the next steps?
EK: Consumers should benefit from getting more data from higher bit rates and more throughput or capacity at an equivalent price point. However, initially it’s about network efficiency for wireless providers. In places where 5G is taking off faster, there is more demand that requires network site density or additional radio spectrum.
As consumers use more data, they will subsequently benefit from a better user experience and potentially more competitive price points. Eventually the value proposition will shift away from consumers to businesses. They will benefit from productivity gains, automation, and business digitization.
CRE: A number shared in our business is that 80 percent of calls are initiated indoors. I assume the data probably goes along with that number pretty closely inside commercial and residential spaces where 5G is available, except for apps like Waze that are strictly cartype services. When do you see these technologies taking effect?
EK: Even before COVID-19, mobility services allowed us to use many different applications on the go. The demand for wide area service keeps growing every year. But 80 percent of wireless connectivity traffic was still indoors, either at home or in the office, using Wi-Fi or cellular. These indoor trends have remained with some demand, even shifting to fixed networks as we have all worked from home. As mobility services return with growing 5G broadband coverage, wireless networks will become a dominant place for connectivity, both indoors and outdoors.
Relative to in-building and 5G, we are on the cusp of that demand coming back as well. We will return to traffic patterns from January and February, where 80 percent of data capacity was in-building. Historically, we have served in-building access through Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). It’s flexible, but expensive, and promotes unique operator licensed bands in the building.
As we transition to 5G, some of these systems can easily evolve, but at lower frequency bands with limited capacity. CBRS is providing the opportunity to use additional common spectrum indoors, much like Wi-Fi. Today it operates in 4G, but these systems will provide enhanced performance for cognitive radio demands, as well as a migration path to 5G.
CRE: If I have a 4G LTE DAS system in my building, with two or three wireless providers on it, can I simply upgrade it to 5G quite easily? Is there equipment that exists for it today, and can I call up my vendor and just say, ‘Hey, come in, add that 5G for me?’ Is that achievable?
EK: It certainly is, depending on the vendor. Due to the conversion of existing lower-band frequencies, the bandwidth and overall system capabilities will feel similar to 4G. Ultimately, it depends if the signal source and radio hardware is 5G compliant and whether the software can be upgraded to 5G.
If the system has a limited set of antenna layers that can be supported—and the backhaul bandwidth is sufficient over DAS—then 5G upgrades are possible. You don’t have to change out any of the transport between the radio and base band. But once again, these systems are at low bandwidths reused from 4G and do not reflect the full potential of 5G at higher frequencies with much wider bandwidths.
CRE: Are there other ways a landlord could support connectivity within the building? What other methodologies could they use besides going to a DAS of a 5G network?
EK: Sure, there are different options for licensed and unlicensed frequencies. For unlicensed frequencies as low as 900 MHz bands, you could use LoRa® or Sigfox® systems for simple sensors to collect data and further enhance smart building technology. In smaller properties, there are also wireless provider- approved, licensed-band, small cells solutions for connectivity that are similar to Wi-Fi access point systems. These properties don’t have to contain a more costly DAS to support voice and mobility. There is also traditional carrier grade Wi-Fi, where options exist for using unlicensed 2 GHz and 5 GHz bands primarily for data.
Wi-Fi systems are universal solutions, due to use of common worldwide bands, and will continue to be enhanced every three to five years. As mentioned earlier, 80 percent of data demand is indoors, with much of that demand attributed to Wi-Fi in the home and office. Mobility for voice and mission-critical secure services requires more of a cellular connectivity scenario to be served via DAS and small cells, or from an outdoor network.
Connectivity options improve greatly with CBRS. There are new, shared bands that are enhancing global 4G and 5G capabilities of cellular protocols and devices. Many options also exist for the Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and cellular and Wi-Fi protocols. You can also potentially send signals from a LoRa gateway over a DAS.
CRE: Are you including Wi-Fi 6 when you say ‘Wi-Fi protocols’? Is it comparable to 5G? Is there much more promise with 5G than there is with other technologies?
EK: Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have similar but not completely overlapping capabilities. There has always been a competition between the two, however, they do complement each other. I believe you will need both. The unlicensed frequency has historically cost less and is less secure, but it provides a lot of bandwidth. It also isn’t very efficient, but it focuses on pedestrian and not true mobile usage.
Wi-Fi 6 employs a lot of the complex communications techniques used in 4G and 5G. The capability exists to scale users and provide a more stable user experience and approach, versus cellular. Wi-Fi 6 also benefits from additional bandwidth from those frequencies and low latencies, when new congestion techniques are employed. Typical limitations include signal range, stable performance under stress and load, security, and number of users. The Wi-Fi community continues to offset or correct the technology, as well as provide smooth upgrades from generation to generation.
With 5G, there is a global ecosystem that pays more attention to research, development, and universal coverage. There is also assurance of a more complex system, with a roadmap detailing low-power IoT, autonomous cars, and satellite systems. 5G will be universally adopted in many dimensions, rather than just indoors or for limited mobility high-speed data.
There will always be a nuanced view of cost and performance for how to serve each use case. The jury is still out on which one will win, so bet on both to be needed in commercial properties.
CRE: What do you see as the first types of devices that will show landlords some benefits of 5G and its investment?
EK: So much comes down to network capability and how it‘s integrated into end-to-end products and applications. It’s not just about the iPhone, it’s also about having a different user interface and how it interacts with the environment. In a hotel system’s interface, data can tell when a guest arrives and checks in, what services they need, and any preset preferences, which can help you determine connectivity and content to deliver ultimate experience satisfaction. There are no passwords, but rather rich data analytics to improve and build upon.
You’ll soon see a device category— one that doesn’t exist today—for immersive experiences, and it’s not a smartphone. The user interface may be gestures or simple voice commands. Currently, there are typical smartphone offerings in 5G that run the gamut— from low band, which feels like 4G, to mid band, which is true 5G. These devices all exist in the market, including ones using high bands like millimeter wave in stadiums and venues, and can provide high throughputs of one to two gigabits or more.
CRE: Ed, thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you think might be important for our audience to understand?
EK: I believe there are plenty of exciting opportunities for cognitive radio connectivity and new revenue sources. We need to ensure 5G networks and service platforms are put in place nationwide, including in-building with cognitive radio connectivity. Once we reach that point, anything is possible. There is tremendous opportunity for landlords and property managers to innovate. It’s not only about 5G, it’s also about using all available wireless technologies in a way that makes life simpler and easier.
It’s important the industry and ecosystem work seamlessly, as bringing these systems together can be complicated. We must try to make it easy for landlords and tenants, while presenting new opportunities for revenue growth.
American Tower brings building and venue owners more than 15 years of experience deploying and monitoring in-building and outdoor wireless infrastructure solutions, including Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), In-Building Small Cells, and Carrier Grade Wi-Fi. Today, we manage more than 400 networks, covering 390 million square feet, in offices, malls, campuses, hospitals, airports, resorts, casinos, and other venues. Our multitenant networks support mobile coverage, high-speed internet, building automation, security, and the Internet of Things, while enabling a path to 5G coverage. As one of the largest Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) in the U.S., we have the financial strength and scale to support any in-building wireless communications needs. Visit us at americantower.com/venues.
LoRa® is a registered trademark of Semtech Corporation.
Sigfox® is a registered trademark of Sigfox Societe Anonyme.