Building Connectivity - What You Need to Know about Cellular and WiFi

By Bill Moten
Smart Building Practice Leader

Having reliable and robust connectivity in a building is just as important as having water, electricity, and natural gas in the building. Therefore, connectivity is truly the “4th Utility”. Well-designed connectivity systems enhance the occupant experience, building efficiency, occupant safetyand are vital to making that building smart. Connectivity allows endusers to connect and engage with their devices and store relevant data. If we look at the types of end devices, you will find smartphones, tablets, and laptops at the top of the list. Users of these devices require a trustworthy, reliable, and fast connection to their mobile network carrier (MNC) of choice and the internet. For these smartphones, tablets, and laptops, we will focus on cellular and WiFi connectivity.  

80% of people use smartphones inside buildings and expect that these mobile devices will work inside as well as they do outside, and with seamless connectivity between the twoThe MNCs provide cellular connectivity, and they own the radio frequencies (RF) that connect the smartphone to their network. MCNs invested billions of dollars with the FCC for their licensed frequencies and are very particular about how and where their RF is used. For many buildings, the RF signal will penetrate the structure from the cellular tower or small-cell just outside. However, with the advent of LEED and better insulating building materials, RF signals are blocked from entering the building from the outside as much as 40db, and 5G millimeter wave will not penetrate at allYou may have a good signal on one side of the building, but not the other. You can also have excellent data rates from one MNC, but not the others. When you see people standing near a window or having to go outside to make a call, send a message, or update their social media, you know that building connectivity is not sufficient, not providing a good tenant experience, and therefore not smart.  

There are several ways to bring the MNC licensed RF signals into the building. Some as simple as purchasing an FCCapproved signal booster system that can be installed by your operations staff. These systems are typically for smaller coverage areas that have good MNC RF signal outside the building. For largermore complex buildings, a distributed antenna system (DAS) may be required. These systems must be designed by certified personal using MNC approved RF-CAD (computeraided design) systems and installed by certified professionals. The MNC needs to approve the design before installation begins and approve the final installation before the system is turned on. DAS typically uses an MNC provided signal source requiring dedicated space for equipment throughout the building. While both booster systems and DAS networks are “wireless” systems, they require a lot of wires, coax, and/or fiber infrastructure to work. When designed and installed correctly, the in-building cellular coverage will be as good if not better than outside.  

WiFi is the other key connectivity element that provides internet connection to our devices, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Unlike cellular, WiFi is based on the IEEE 802.11 specification utilizing an unlicensed RF spectrum. Therefore, anyone can install it wherever they want. However, the installation still needs to consider the built environment and usage to ensure both coverage and capacity meets the needs of the users. Many WiFi installations provide coverage for a strong signal. However, as more devices utilize WiFi, capacity and latency become the challenge. WiFi designers need to pay careful attention to neighboring WiFi systems to avoid possible signal interference. In some cases, WiFi design is influenced by the application as well. There are many WiFi design techniques and solutions that support both coverages, capacity, and application requirements. Just like the cellular enhancement systems, WiFi also requires a lot of wires and networking equipment that needs to be designed, installed, and optimized correctly to provide a great enduser experience.  

A buildings connectivity is a leading indicator of how the occupant’s experience will be. If the connectivity is not good enough, tenant and employee attraction and retention will suffer as well as the owner’s reputation. The method to ensure and confirm that the building’s connectivity is, in fact, good, great, awesome, or not is to test it. Testing can be as simple as running a test throughout the building on each MNC and WiFi network measuring download rate, upload rate, latency, and coverage area. There are many methods available to test wireless systems, including simple smartphone apps to the more complex wireless test equipment for the professionals.  

While this blog covers cellular and WiFi connectivity, please note that there are many other wireless and wired systems providing connectivity for building management systems, property technology, IOT sensors, public safety, and many more. There are new emerging technologies, including 5G, CBRS OnGo private LTE, and WiFi-6, that will continually raise the bar on defining what is good connectivity.   

A recent WiredScore report stated that 84% of tenants would pay more per square foot for their space if the owner could prove a building has reliable connectivity. Smart employers and landlords know that poor connectivity impacts employee productivity and morale. Buildings that optimize their connectivity systems to enhance occupant experience, improve building efficiency, and ensure public safety will be in a stronger position to be recognized as an awesome place to work while maximizing property value and revenueThe combination of technologies, applications and connectivity solutions may seem overwhelming, Leading Edge Design Group (LEDG) can help make sense of your current connectivity status and develop a plan to help you reach your optimum Smart Building performance level.