Fifth-generation mobile network technology – 5G – is attracting more than its share of superlatives. It's being touted as the fastest and most reliable connection to date, one that will revolutionise not only the way we live and do business, but also the way in which our towns and cities function.
But how exactly does 5G differ from 4G? What are the barriers to its roll-out? And what impact can we expect it to have on the built environment?
One of the companies best placed to comment on 5G in the built environment is WiredScore. Founded in New York in 2013 with the endorsement of the then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, it provides a connectivity certification rating scheme for commercial buildings. In 2015, it launched in the UK and has since expanded into France, Ireland, Germany and Canada.
According to Sanjaya Ranasinghe, technical director at WiredScore, the introduction of 4G was all about improving mobile performance for consumers. "The key thing is that when 4G was introduced it was very much aimed at enhancing the mobile user experience," he says.
That user experience will be further enhanced by 5G, but it will also do far more. "It can handle 1,000 times the number of things connected to the network compared with 4G," says Ranasinghe. "Those things aren't only going to be connected to our own devices. Everything can be connected, so things such as street furniture, packages in a delivery network, sensors in a building." In short, 5G will support the expansion of the internet of things.
Users of 5G will also notice a big difference when it comes to latency, the technical term for the delay in sending and receiving information. With 4G, latency is about 1/10th of a second. That may not sound like much, but it is still perceptible. But with 5G, latency will fall to around 1/100th of a second.
"That difference has some interesting implications," Ranasinghe explains. "Take augmented reality (AR). With a 4G network, if you had a virtual reality (VR) or AR headset, the latency of the network responding as you move your head delays what you see and can actually make you feel sick. With 5G you get the ability for it to happen near enough in real time."
"To deliver what it's promising to deliver, 5G will need to be available deep inside buildings" Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Technology Research
In other words, with 5G, technologies such as AR and VR will become ubiquitous, freed from broadband and public wifi networks. And that has implications for their use in everything from designing and constructing a building to marketing space to prospective buyers or occupiers. Professionals and consumers will be able to digitally explore a building, whether conceptual or actual, from wherever they happen to be.
However, nobody should assume that 5G will revolutionise mobile connectivity overnight. After all, 4G coverage is far from universal around 10 years after its introduction. Independent mobile analytics company Opensignal reported that consumers in just five countries have access to 4G more than 90% of the time. "It is still very early days", says Tom Carroll, head of EMEA and UK corporate research at JLL. "It is far from ubiquitous, and sometimes we can overestimate how quickly these things can penetrate a market in a consistent way."
Indeed, there are practical issues that need to be overcome before the full benefits can be realised. Most importantly, 5G operates at a far higher frequency than 4G. That means improved quality, but also that the signal's range from any particular source is shorter and that it is more easily disrupted.
"The highest band that 4G goes to is 2.5GHz, and 5G starts at 3.5GHz," says noted connectivity expert Caroline Gabriel, co-founder of Rethink Technology Research. "The higher up the spectrum you go, the shorter the range of signal from the base station and the more difficulty it has getting through walls. Some modern building materials make it harder."
As a result, the source of a 5G signal needs to move inside buildings. "For 5G to deliver what it is promising to deliver, it will need to be available deep inside buildings, which means not just beaming a signal in from a mast outside," says Gabriel. "Any kind of industrial, enterprise, government or civic building will need to have 5G base stations inside. That has been technically possible with 4G, but it hasn't really happened."
Installing the necessary infrastructure doesn't have to be particularly disruptive. Indeed, in most instances, it is no more problematic than installing a high-quality commercial wifi network. "It depends on the size of the building, of course, and for larger buildings it will require professional installation so you need people to come in and make sure that it's done properly," says Gabriel. "But there has been a lot of work done recently to simplify deployment."
Another issue for building owners and occupiers is cost. The frequencies used by mobile phones are owned by the operators, who pay Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, a lot of money to buy the frequency every time a new technology comes out. "So, you need the buy-in of the operators to do this, and they will be looking at their return on investment," says Ranasinghe. "The reality is that the number of stakeholders can make it difficult to work, and expensive."
However, it appears that the market might come to the rescue. So-called "integrators" are working up models that should minimise the capital expenditure (capex) needed from either landlords or occupiers – or, indeed, both. "Their operating model is starting to change," says Ranasinghe.
"They're going the same way as software in terms of paying a monthly fee. That as-a-service model, where you switch payment from capex to operational expenditure (opex) is attractive. They've realised a lot of upfront infrastructure is needed and there has been huge investment in these companies."
Whatever the cost, Carroll encourages all involved to at least think about installing a 5G network. "We would certainly suggest that any organisation, whether it is developing or occupying real estate, needs to be trying to get ahead of the curve in terms of the digital workplace," he says. "That is the direction of travel and we are seeing clear and consistent demand. Organisations that can get ahead of the curve will outperform."
"Installing the necessary infrastructure doesn't have to be particularly disruptive"
Quite apart from the need to bring 5G into commercial buildings, there are also issues with providing a reliable signal outside, due to its inherent sensitivity. Simon Navin MRICS, who leads on CityVerve, the UK's smart city demonstrator, for Ordnance Survey, has spent a huge amount of time working out the level of data that will be required to plan a comprehensive 5G network for a city. His conclusion is that it is incredibly granular. "To roll out 5G technology, there is going to be a need for very detailed data about the built environment, right down to where foliage regimes are managed – so, people cutting down trees and bushes – bus stops, what buildings are made of," he says. "All of that information will need to be put into modelling packages to allow the effective roll-out to happen."
A huge number of booster points will be required, located in much the same way that the City of London Corporation has installed boxes on lampposts to provide free, reliable wifi in such a dense urban environment. "The challenge with infrastructure is about knowing where your assets are," says Navin. "Are they going to be lampposts, or traffic signals, or on the top of buildings? You need to have a clear view of where assets are, who owns them and how they can be maintained, as there may be access issues. And there may be planning issues with where you can site the technology. It could involve installing new masts, for instance. We're going to need to repurpose existing assets."
Assuming a proper network can be put in place, however, 5G has the potential to revolutionise both the way in which businesses function and cities are managed. Driverless cars are a good example. Currently the technology essentially seeks to replicate what human drivers do by sensing what is going on around them and combining that information with accurate maps to ensure they stay on course and avoid collision. "If you combine [that with] the benefits of 5G, you can see autonomous vehicles becoming a network where they all talk to one another, which could drive efficiencies at a much greater scale," says Ranasinghe.
The impact of 5G in an industrial and logistics context will also influence the way in which buildings are designed. At present, factory and warehouse robots are essentially tethered to a building's existing network. If, however, a 5G network were to be installed within the building and a proper network established outside, robots would have far greater freedom of movement.
"Factory robots are almost always attached to a fixed line and can only go up and down a fixed track", says Gabriel. "With 4G you don't get the reliability and response time needed to control a robot, but you do with 5G. So, you can untether your robots and allow them to move around, go outside, and so on."
"With something like that, you need a really reliable network – you can't have the signal dropping – and that's what is driving enterprises to say they could do a lot with 5G, including things they haven't done before, like using drones. But they will need a super-reliable network."
So, the potential for 5G to revolutionise our cities and how businesses operate is real and palpable. But the technology's potential for industry and municipalities will only be realised if everyone involved – providers, occupiers, developers, landlords and the public sector – invest in making it so.
In April last year, the UK government made headlines when it was revealed that it was considering letting Chinese technology firm Huawei play a substantial part in the roll-out of 5G technology in the country. The US in particular was unhappy with the situation and urged then-prime minister Theresa May to reconsider.
However, the fact is that Huawei has been involved in mobile technology in the UK for many years and there is a fear that a ban would significantly delay the roll-out of 5G. "If the government decides that Huawei is banned from the 5G networks, it would affect the timing in the UK because most of the operators work with the company," says Caroline Gabriel, co-founder of Rethink Technology Research.
"It could delay things because it takes time to switch to a different vendor. Operators would have to re-evaluate other vendors. There are also technologies where Huawei is more advanced, so operators might decide to wait until [other vendors] catch up."
Indeed, China is far more advanced than any other nation when it comes to 5G, something that could soon provide a sizeable economic advantage. "China's vision for 5G is just on a different scale compared with any other country," says Gabriel. "They are pushing it into buildings. They are looking at it as a national infrastructure network like electricity. And when you do that you can roll out new applications at a different level."