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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Rethinking wireless networks for post-COVID19 Smart Buildings

For the past month or so, I've been thinking about the longer-term technology, policy and business trends that might emerge in the wake of the current pandemic. I'm especially interested in those that could directly or indirectly affect the use and deployment of networks and communications.

I wrote up my initial scenarios for what might lie ahead for the telecoms industry in the recent STL Partners report on COVID-19: Now, Next & After (link), and also discussed them on the STL webinar on the same topic (link). The next update webinar is on May 6th - link. 

I've also participated in other client webinars and podcasts on campus networks (link), private 4G/5G (link) and Wi-Fi6E (link) recently - and I always include a section considering the pandemic's impact. (Any market analysis or opinion formed more than 2 months ago now needs to be reconsidered in the light of the pandemic and coming economic recession).

With that in mind, one area I've started thinking about is that of in-building wireless and smart buildings, especially relating to business locations. (Residential coverage of cellular and better home broadband / Wi-Fi is also top-of-mind, but I'll tackle that separately another time).

Obviously, offices and shopping malls are currently empty in much of the world, but eventually they will return to regular use, to some level at least. Even buildings sadly vacated by companies that cannot survive the economic impact will likely gain new tenants and uses.  

Making buildings pandemic-proof 

We already have building codes and regulations to protect us against fire risks, and even earthquakes. For fires, we have sensors, alarms, fire escapes, drills, signage and so on. In parts of the world there are specific rules governing indoor coverage for public safety radios, and they are being updated as agencies upgrade from P25 / TETRA systems to 4G / 5G critical-communications cellular alternatives.

So what else would it take to make a building "pandemic-proof"? I'm especially interested how we manage social distancing - both during the next phase of recovery and a gradual return to near-normal when a vaccine becomes available, but also during possible future waves of COVID or new entirely outbreaks. 

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis there was a big focus on banks' transparency, financial stability and regulatory "stress tests". I'd be very surprised if equivalent changes don't take place over the next few years - especially as many coronavirus infections are understood to occur indoors.

I've found various articles about smart buildings and the pandemic already, where the main focus seems to be on general hygiene and infection control. Using thermal cameras (and perhaps facial recognition) can automate detection of people with fevers. LED lights can provide disinfection in some cases, and bathroom sensors can help enforce hand-washing. Remote access to building-management systems allow facilities personnel to work from home. Better management of temperature and humidity may reduce the survival time of viruses and bacteria.

I can imagine a range of strategies being adopted in coming years:
  • Temperature-detection and hygiene management, as above.
  • Ability for remote building-management wherever possible
  • Design guidelines for wider corridors and stairways, better ventilation, virus-unfriendly surfaces, automated doors rather than handles, and so on
  • Ways to impose, measure and enforce social-distancing rules in emergencies - for example by dynamically lowering maximum numbers of permitted people in enclosed spaces, or digital signs for making corridors or aisles into one-way systems.
  • Use of sensors to measure occupancy, density and flow of people, and control entry/exit better
  • Automated disinfection systems or processes (maybe using robots)
  • Use of occupants' / visitors' phones or other devices to help them navigate / work more safely
  • Ability for authorities to use cameras, admission-control and other data for contact-tracing purposes (subject to emergency laws on privacy etc).
Clearly, not all of these can apply to all buildings - and there is obviously a huge spectrum of venue types with different requirements. A supermarket is different to an office block, a corner-shop, a factory or warehouse full of robots. Older buildings are not likely to be able to widen corridors, while a "cube farm" has more flexibility. 

But what that means is that in a future outbreak, a government could say: "Workplaces certified to standard PNDMC-A can remain open, if they reduce occupancy to X, Y & Z metrics. PNDMC-B locations must comply with emergency rules A, B & C. All others must close."

Clearly, those type of rules will incentivise building owners and developers to upgrade their sites wherever possible. While it is too early to guess exactly how the specific regulations might be formulated, there are nonetheless some initial ideas and steps to think through.

The role of networks

Given my own focus on mobile and wireless systems, a key theme immediately leaps to my mind: many of these techniques and practices will require better and wider indoor connectivity than is common today in many places. 

While some building-management systems will be based on wired connections (not least as they'll need cables for power anyway), I expect wireless networks to be extremely important for much of this.

I see wireless networks being employed both indirectly (for connection of sensors, cameras or other devices, such as smartphones used for distancing apps) and directly by using the network itself as a sensing and measurement tool. Indoor mapping and positioning will be needed in tandem with wireless for various use-cases.

There are particular challenges and opportunities for indoor wireless systems here:
  • There will be a need to support both public networks (for indoor use of nationwide MNO networks and services) and localised private wireless, for the building or company's own needs.
  • Almost inevitably, both 3GPP cellular (4G/5G) and Wi-Fi (5/6/7) will be essential for different use-cases and device types, plus public-safety wireless such as TETRA. In many some cases additional technologies such as Bluetooth low-energy, ZigBee or proprietary systems will also be required as well. 
  • All of this will occur while major transitions to 5G (at different frequencies) and private cellular networks are ongoing in coming years.
  • Any real-time mobile app, whether it is giving alerts, or uploading updates on location, will be dependent on good wireless connectivity, either via Wi-Fi or in-building cellular connections
  • Proximity-based apps (for instance using Bluetooth) will risk false-positives if they are not integrated with building location and indoor-mapping systems. You can safely stay 2 metres from someone infected, if there is a wall or floor/ceiling between you.
  • IoT systems such as disinfectant robots will also need access to indoor maps and granular positioning technology.
  • Next-generation networks such as private/campus 5G and also recent Wi-Fi meshes have improved wireless-positioning abilities. This could allow both real-time and reported proximity-monitoring - as well as enabling remote working & even "lights out" full automation in industrial settings
  • Both Wi-Fi and cellular networks can work out how many devices/users are not just connected, but detected, even if they do not attempt - or are not permitted - to connect to a given system. That could yield good data on user-density, especially if they are personal devices such as smartphones.
  • Wi-Fi enhancements already enable motion-detection - which can be considerably more accurate than traditional infra-red, and also work through walls. One technology innovator here is Cognitive Systems (link) but there are others as well. I've also seen suggestions that future 5G variants may be able to do something similar, if deployed with small cells. (I'm not sure how it would work with other in-building shared networks, though).
  • Potential to use localised cell-broadcast messaging, or Wi-Fi hotspot captive-portal pages, to distribute public health information and advice
  • There may be a growing need to align the indoor wireless network(s) with nearby outdoors connectivity, or link multiple buildings together well. Campus networks are already growing in importance for multiple reasons (link) and social-distancing and control adds another set of use-cases. (Consider private/public spaces such as courtyards, rooftop bars, parking lots and so on).
  • The use of virtualised radio networks (or specific variants such as OpenRAN) could also prove valuable here - for instance to enable operators to scale up/down capacity dedicated to indoor 5G wireless systems, or switch radio VNFs between indoor and outdoor coverage. (This goes far beyond pandemic-proofing and I will write about it another time). 
  • Neutral-host indoor wireless systems will be able to onboard new tenant networks such as public safety, or private building management networks, depending on future requirements and spectrum licensing policy.
  • There may be edge-computing requirements driven by pandemic-proofting, although that doesn't necessarily imply either on-prem or very granular nearby edge facilities, rather than metro-level.
This is still just a very rough draft of my ideas - and clearly there are various policy / regulatory hypotheses here as well as technology direction. I'm not a specialist on building regulations, so it's quite possible I've made unreasonable assumptions. But this is intended as the start of a discussion, rather than a definitive forecast. I expect this topic and more detailed discussion to surface in coming months and years.

Your comments are very welcome - and if you want to get in touch with me directly, please connect on my LinkedIn, or send me a Twitter DM. If you're hosting any webinars, or holding internal brainstorms on this, I'd be very interested in participating.