By: Timothy Griffin
Brace yourselves, because you’re about to see months of advertisements from every major wireless carrier talking about their new 5G wireless networks.
Data from Accenture estimates that the deployment of the 5G network will spur $500B in economic growth and $275B in new investment.
But beyond the hype, what is the impact of 5G networks on commercial real estate and the world around us? And (perhaps more importantly) when should everyone look to upgrade their phones?
What does 5G mean, and when is it coming?
The first (and somewhat confusing) aspect about 5G networks is that the “G” doesn’t have any connection to the actual speed of the network. It actually stands for the 5th Generation of wireless networks as we know them today, and over time will replace the 4G networks we currently use.
However, just as it was when 3G networks transitioned to 4G five years ago, the transition won’t take place overnight.
In the race to be first, different carriers are rolling out their very first 5G network products in late 2018 and early 2019. But those devices won’t be smartphones, they’ll be more like 5G mobile hotspots. Verizon is also launching a home internet service using 5G in a handful of cities by the end of the year, although that platform uses nonstandard 5G equipment.
Wireless carriers are also using some creative license in their branding. AT&T is labeling its 4G LTE network “5G Evolution” for branding purposes as its “true” 5G platform rolls out.
In reality, actual 5G smartphones won’t be ready until later in 2019, and even then the networks powering them won’t be fully built-out until the following months and years.
What’s different about this network?
While the actual execution of the network is obviously extremely complex, a 5G network (in concept form) is built with the idea of transmitting larger amounts of data over short distances. From an antenna perspective, that means using a greater number of smaller network locations, as opposed to a few large cell phone towers.
In terms of scale, its estimated there are 154,000 cell towers nationwide today. By 2026, S&P Global Market Intelligence expects 800,000 small cells to be deployed.
For users, the result is more bandwidth (what people usually use to refer to their network speed) and reduced latency (the communications lag between different devices).
One analogy often used to describe the difference between bandwidth and latency is the idea of a hose. In a 4G network, the stream of data from the wireless antenna to your smartphone looks like a traditional 50-foot garden hose, able to send a decent amount of water anywhere in a somewhat long distance.
The width of the hose is the bandwidth – or amount of data – your network can deliver, and the time and distance that data must travel to get to you is your latency.
Using the same simile, a 5G network acts more like a 5-foot firehose. The data may not travel as far, but you get a lot of it very quickly. And if you have enough short hoses covering that same area, you can deliver a lot more data in a lot less time.
How fast will the network really be?
While there is certainly a great deal of hype surrounding the technology, various tests have shown that 5G networks might be up to 100 times faster than the status quo.
Real Estate and Permitting Concerns Remain
However, the idea of using more smaller antennas also creates some issues in the rollout of the network in some areas. Depending on how federal, state, and local rules come together in various communities, the legal process involved in setting up a cell phone antenna – regardless of its range – can be complicated from a commercial real estate and permitting perspective.
In many metro areas, carriers have worked with cities and towns to use their existing right-of-ways, hiding small cell devices in plain sight, such as inside the base of streetlights or similar concepts. And the FCC has taken steps to shorten the review process nationwide.
Further demand from 5G carriers, app developers and other groups is also creating additional siting and network opportunities.
Needham-based Bigbelly was founded in 2003 with solar-powered waste compactors that, in 2007, connected to the cloud to gives cities and towns a real-time dashboard of capacity, bins that are ready to collect, and other metrics. Now, Bigbelly is taking the its smart waste bin form factor and extending its use for other applications. It’s deploying it as a multi-purpose hosting platform to hide Wi-Fi, 5G, or other Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) in plain sight, right on the streetscape where the pedestrians are using their mobile devices.
“The potential for ICT applications with 5G is amazing,” says Alex Gamota, a graduate of MIT’s Center for Real Estate and the Senior Vice President and General Manager for Bigbelly. “Think about what apps like Waze have been able to do with the current network. 5G networks will take that to an entirely new level. The impact of ICT applications leveraging a network of small cells that are located ubiquitously along the streetscape is tremendous on the quality of life for a community. In working with cities and towns that are at the forefront of enabling 5G infrastructure, keeping their public spaces free of equipment clutter is paramount to a sustainable network solution and eases the roll out.”
However, the rollout will not be smooth everywhere. Citing concerns about the potential health impacts of cell phone radiation, the town of Mill Valley, CA passed a local ordinance giving local authorities the ability to restrict 5G antennas. Other towns in various areas have passed similar rules, creating barriers which will essentially ensure an uneven rollout of the platform.
The impact on the Internet of Things
While the speeds 5G can achieve are impressive, it’s the reduced latency which may have the most far-reaching impact on commercial real estate and the Internet of Things.
Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam noted that with 5G, latency could be cut from the current 100 milliseconds to less than 1ms.
However, faster bandwidths and reduced latencies will also mean that when the network is fully operational, much of the actual processing and computing work that currently takes place on your device will actually occur on the network.
If that happens, the battery life of devices everywhere will dramatically improve, with McAdam predicting that you might only need to charge your phone once a month.
That improved battery life may matter even more in other applications, such as the Internet of Things and all the “smart devices” it may unlock. In those applications, McAdam says connected devices may have a 10-year battery life, potentially making the idea of embedding sensors into even more aspects of the built environment a real reality.
“When 5G starts to take off, more and more devices will move onto the edge of the wireless networks,” Gamota says. “That will lead to better building automation, better remote analysis, and even more business models and applications that we haven’t even dreamed up yet.”
The definition of a “smart building” will quickly move beyond the idea of smart thermostats and motion-activated lights, and into a world where everything – from the quality of the air, to the occupancy of various offices, and the wear on various building systems – can be continually monitored and optimized autonomously.
At some level, the massive changes it will unlock make it almost impossible to predict everything that 5G networks will enable. After all, the first iPhone came out just 11 years ago.
How far technology evolves in the next several years will be amazing to watch.