August 22, 2019

Are Smart buildings really that Smart? It would appear not when it comes to facilitating a reliable 4G signal

The requirements of a modern building have changed dramatically in recent years. Not so very long ago a building simply had to provide a space for people to live, learn, work or visit. Now they are expected to be sustainable, eco-friendly, communicate problems, reduce carbon emissions and lower energy bills by becoming power “producers” rather than power “users”. In other words, they have to be “Smart.” 

A vast range of initiatives are already in place to reduce the carbon footprint of modern buildings, including the global drive for all buildings to be nZEB (near zero energy building) by the end of 2020 and net zero carbon by 2030 through the increased deployment of renewable energy systems, such as solar panels or integrated photovoltaics. However, another feature of an eco-friendly building, according to the World Green Building Council, is the “Consideration of the quality of life of occupants in design, construction and operation.”

When reading this statement, it would not be unreasonable to assume that mobile connectivity falls under this umbrella because, after all, smartphones are integral to every aspect of modern-day living and are the go-to device for controlling smart building automation systems. However, a national survey carried out by the British Chamber of Commerce revealed that 70% of commercial buildings are blighted by full or partial not spots in their mobile coverage, whereby impacting basic business tasks such as holding a conversation or accessing the internet. The situation is just as bad for private buildings and in the homes. 

Why then in our digital age, where smartphones are the underpinning technology behind so many IoT services that facilitate smart building automation services, do so many buildings fail to provide satisfactory levels of coverage, when communication is regarded as the 4th utility, along with water gas and electricity?

The situation is understandable in older properties because mobile coverage was simply never a consideration in their initial design. They are often heavily reliant on stone, concrete and brick, all of which are renowned for impacting signals, especially in densely populated urban environments. 

As for new buildings, strict building regulations and modern construction materials can greatly impact indoor mobile coverage; Energy Performance Certificates, high standards of soundproofing and safety, insulation requirements, treated glass,  galvanized steel, reinforced concrete are all great for reducing a building’s overall carbon footprint, but they don’t allow RF waves to penetrate inside. The higher frequency signals (which are often used for 4G and now for 5G) are the worst effected, and the deeper inside a building you go, the more coverage deteriorates.  Lower frequencies have better propagation rates, but do not have the bandwidth of the higher frequencies. 

As well as striving to achieve the 2030 sustainability targets set out by the building regulatory bodies, construction companies should also be taking mobile coverage into account because there are Government targets for 95% mobile coverage throughout the UK, regardless of location. Not only would this satisfy growing consumer demand, mobile coverage represents a huge opportunity for property developers to increase the total value of their buildings through mobile driven value-added services, as well as maximise occupancy rates.

The only feasible way to provide the bandwidth needed is to ensure appropriate infrastructure is installed to facilitate reliable coverage in the first place. This has historically been challenging because of regulatory constraints, equipment costs, and the lengthy time scales involved. Indeed, many larger buildings, including public sector ones, have been forced to consider deploying contraband systems to overcome mobile coverage problems, which has put them at loggerheads with the operators and the regulators.

However, thanks to changes made by Ofcom concerning the use of such equipment (known asWireless Telegraphy (mobile repeater) (Exemption) Regulations 2018), providing ubiquitous mobile coverage is no longer the challenge it once was. Any property developer wanting to overcome the coverage problem, make their property more sought after and deliver a better consumer experience, can do so by purchasing off the shelf equipment that is readily available and affordable.

So long as that equipment satisfies the repeater spec prescribed by Ofcom, signal booster technologies can be rolled out en masse. The Cel-Fi by Nextivity product range is one option that ticks all the regulatory boxes. It is the only product range in the UK that satisfies Ofcom’s mobile repeater licence exemption specification, making it legal to use on all mobile 3G and 4G networks.

Seamless mobile coverage for Smart buildings is a win-win situation for all concerned. Consumers can access bandwidth hungry data applications, businesses can access services such as online trading, building automation solutions such as smart metering can be controlled more accurately, property owners can deliver greater value to building occupants and the Government is well on the way to reaching its targets for >95% coverage for all.