With the introduction of the fifth-generation of cellular networks, commonly referred to as 5G, there are powerful new intelligent building capabilities on the near horizon. 5G will be a catalyst for expanding the effectiveness of the Internet of Things (IoT) — the embedded sensors and beacons tied to a myriad of building systems — providing real-time operational and analytic capabilities as never before.

Combined with other digital technology advancements, including much broader acceptance and fast-growing adoption of things like cloud computing, edge processing, and artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and IoT are quickly transforming the way we think about designing and operating buildings, and how we think about our living and working environments.

WHAT IS 5G, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

This is not just a re-tooling of your dad’s 3G phone or a software update to the current 4G. 5G technology is a revolutionary new approach to wireless and mobile network topologies. It facilitates communications and large data transfer at very high speeds. Described as a renaissance by many in the tech-industry, this fifth-generation of wireless spectrum communication promises to have a major impact on everything digital.

The core of 5G technology is a new wireless spectrum networking architecture utilizing millimeter-wave bands capable of both high capacity (bandwidth) and high speed (up to 1000 times faster than 4G). Additionally, being completely backwards compatible with existing wireless networks, 5G creates a ubiquitous wireless broadband “blanket” around the areas where it is deployed.

With expanded spectrum utilization and new chipset technologies from manufacturers like Qualcomm, Intel and others, 5G will be capable of near real-time data transfer speeds. Self-driving cars, connected healthcare, facial recognition, and intelligent building IoT systems are all data-heavy applications. 5G makes possible the transport, interpretation, and reaction to data in a way that will be both widely available and more economical. Because of this, 2019 should prove to be a break-out year for 5G-enabled IoT applications to be seen with greater commercial viability.

5G’S IMPACT ON INTELLIGENT BUILDING DESIGN

Where autonomous vehicles and facial recognition get much press today, the commercial and institutional building-related market may prove to be the low hanging fruit for IoT applications.  While the architecture/engineering/contracting (AEC) community has been dipping a toe in the waters of intelligent building design for several years now, there is still no mainstream acceptance of these new Building Internet of Things (“BIoT” **) technologies.

With limited examples of solid empirical data demonstrating a value beyond energy efficiency, the challenge of bringing new and untested technologies into existing and often disparate and fractionalized organizational management structures (e.g., Facilities, Operations, and IT departments) remains a barrier to adoption and acceptance. Since commercial buildings represent nearly 40% of the total US carbon emissions, energy efficiency is certainly not an unworthy cause.

However, an “Intelligent Building” is not simply one with automated HVAC control and a dashboard displaying different visualizations of energy utilization. According to industry analysists at Gartner, IoT is defined as “a network of dedicated physical objects (things) that contain embedded technology to sense or interact with their internal state or the external environment.”

For the building industry, things are generally considered any device with the ability to communicate information of its state via a network connection, IP address, or other unique identifier, wired or wirelessly. So, is logical to assume the number of things in a large commercial or institutional building is likely to be very high (e.g. all the system sensors, cameras, doors, devices, etc. that have an IP or network address).

TO INFINITY…AND BEYOND

Although the sheer number of things can be massive, “number” is not the operative word here, but rather “communicate.” IoT essentially makes things the producer and/or consumer of information, which is directly influenced by the advent of 5G communication technologies.

As network-capable devices continue to proliferate throughout our business and personal lives, the data being produced will exponentially grow as well. Capturing and storing these data points is not a problem when all these systems operate as independent agents with their own standard set of pre-defined criteria and system databases. The BIoT complexity begins when you consider how to bring those things together into a common ecosystem with specific business goals and other use cases.

Integrating HVAC system sensors with occupancy sensors is a relatively typical function found in nearly all modern building management systems. However, what if you want to integrate data from LED lighting systems? Add to that room scheduling systems, audiovisual systems, and enterprise management and help desk systems. Cross reference all these things with the access control system or some other enterprise system data.

Typically, all these various building systems have their own set of variables and database structures. The challenge and opportunity for BIoT is understanding what system data is important, along with when and how often it should be referenced or captured. Moreover, these individual system databases have historically not been built to work outside of their own environment. Because of that, in order to provide valuable metrics, visualizations, and operations, third-party middleware (i.e., application program interfaces or APIs) may be necessary to harmonize data from different sources

5G communication technologies will offer significant advantages for these multi-system integrations and the data they produce playing a vital role in defining true intelligent buildings. Setting the stage early in the architectural design process will become vital if building designers, consultants, and constructors are to help their clients realize the BIoT potential.

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

For any IoT application to become mainstream and useful on an extended life-cycle basis, industry standards must be established and accepted by a vast community of participants. Two organizations — the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G ACIA) — are leading a coalition of industry, government, and research-focused partners, defining standards around the spectrum (i.e. wireless network infrastructure for transport) on the one side, and hardware or device technology — necessary to harness the wireless signals — on the other.

Great progress has been made with the release and subsequent revisions to many sections of 5G standards. Over the course of 2019, we anticipate seeing more and more of this infrastructure and technology investment from the major network players (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.), in addition to chipset and device manufacturers (e.g., Qualcomm, Intel, Cisco and many others). Initially, these investments are likely to be less relevant to the consumer, but they should prove well-justified at the commercial and enterprise levels.

A final challenge to massive 5G deployment is Federal policy and governance built around the IoT and 5G applications. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has anticipated this 5G/IoT initiative and is paving new roads to support innovation around it.

Auctions for “high-band” millimeter-wave spectrum are coming. However, other segments of spectrum, including some unlicensed bands, will also need to play a part for 5G technology to work reliably and effectively. Aggregation and switching between spectrum technologies and other unlicensed bands such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee will be vital for data communications to be seamless.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Facilitated by the combination of low-cost sensors, a broader acceptance of cloud and edge computing, and increasing AI-applications, the solution architecture for scaling BIoT is poised to become mainstream.

The cost of data storage and cloud computing processes often have the greatest impact on the IT budget, offsetting the gains of a potential application. However, the practice of edge computing or installing gateways, which aggregate data at the device level, can significantly reduce the amount of data that goes across the network, and determine what data gets used, stored or deleted, and minimize cost impact of BIoT implementation.

This coming year should prove a pivotal one for real-world advancements that incorporate 5G technology and low-latency, ultra-fast, wireless broadband capabilities, facilitating more BIoT applications for intelligent building technologies. Once the economic viability for BIoT applications factor is no longer an issue, flexibility, security and the technology architecture will inspire and define useful solutions.

Given their areas of core responsibilities, knowledge set and total resources, it is unlikely Facilities or IT departments alone will be solely responsible for how to entirely define and implement these new BIoT applications.  Building owners, designers/consultants, and contractors will all have a respective role in creating new and advanced intelligent buildings that go beyond pure energy efficiencies.  The 5G enabled future should significantly enhance the user/occupant’s experience while offering many other creative and useful BIoT and AI-enabled innovations.

** I’m using BIoT as an abbreviation for the otherwise cumbersome term Building Internet of Things. This “BIoT” is not to be confused with Biot (“Biological robot“), the name given to an extraterrestrial biological robot in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama, or a fictional world in the DC Comics universe. I originally considered using iBIoT (“Intelligent Building Internet of Things”), but was afraid people might start pronouncing it to rhyme with “idiot”… which kind of defeats the whole intelligent aspect of the term. 😊

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JP Bonin brings over twenty years of knowledge and leadership in the systems integration and information technology industry. His practice area includes coordinating the optimal client-specific approach for building-wide hardware, software, and platform-based systems, bridging critical technology gaps surrounding all the proposed digital systems incorporated into new buildings, providing clients valuable insights for analyzing and determining the best combination of environmental, operational, and business intelligence outcomes. Share your thoughts with him at jpbonin@TheSextantGroup.com or 617.933.9229.