The impending arrival of 5G networks will change everything in construction. 5G connectivity will affect the entire building process, from the communication of data and images between trades, designers, construction offices and client owners, to building infrastructure itself. In other words, it will impact the way ICI projects are conceived, engineered and constructed.
It’s all about the Internet of Things (IoT), the seamless interconnection of multiple devices. Key to IoT is 5G technology and its ultra-low latency. Low latency means less delay sending a package of information from one device to another. 5G’s latency is about one millisecond whereas 4G’s is 30 to 50 milliseconds — that’s a dramatic difference.
Over the past several years, construction has benefitted from significant advancements in building techniques, materials, scheduling, wireless data communication, cloud technology and collaborative platforms like BIM. Yet 5G offers the potential to even further improve and enhance many critical areas of the industry, such as communications between offices and remote worksites. For example, the increased bandwidth, reduced latency and improved reliability of 5G will allow a more seamless transfer of ultra-high-definition videos available through drones, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
In the building process itself, 5G’s low latency unlocks the door to the further development of robotic and tele-remote equipment — machines capable of recognizing signals, receiving instructions, mapping, making split-second decisions and sharing communication with one another. In tele-remote operations, real-time video feedback quality will be vastly improved, critical for both efficiency gains and safe operation.
The implications are revolutionary for an industry that has been slower to adopt technology than other industrial sectors. In a paper presented at the 36th International Symposium on Automation and Robotics and Construction, authors Reja and Vargehese outlined several characteristics specific to construction that have impeded the acceptance of new technologies. “The construction sector is different as it involves complexities like unstructured processes, erratic work environment, and remote construction sites. Construction is also a highly fragmented as well as a multi-disciplinary industry,” they write.
Reja and Vergehese suggested that the arrival of 5G will challenge the construction sector to adopt changes in policy, technology and project implementation. They warn that, “Companies that don’t embrace this shift will not be able to ensure sustained business growth due to significant productivity losses.”
Business and government already need fast and reliable networks to keep up with current demands for streaming services, mobile applications and connected devices. Without them, data transfer can be slow, voice and video meetings can be interrupted, and download times made longer.
While 5G promises to address those issues as interconnectivity increases, the infrastructure requirements for 5G implementation — both for the contractor during construction and the building owner afterwards — need to be recognized. For example, 5G’s diminishing ability to penetrate insulated construction materials as frequencies increase will require a heavy reliance on multiple sensors communicating with the cell network.
The expected increase in digital traffic as consumers and businesses turn to devices that connect with everything will also be significant. Fortunately, 5G will be able to handle the required connection density — up to one million connections per square kilometre compared to 10,000 connections with 4G. Nevertheless, 5G will require an elaborate infrastructure of antennas and signal boosters inside buildings and in public areas.
Who should make this infrastructure investment: government or the private sector? Reja and Vargehese suggested a multi-level partnership: “The governments and private players should join hands to understand the economic growth the 5G standard can bring and should work closely for all the necessary technological upgradation necessary.”
Even so, many network technology experts say that the increased CAPEX costs of 5G can not be carried by traditional private-network carriers alone and must be shared by building owners and landlords. They believe wireless 5G infrastructure in buildings, on highways and across cities — everything from optical, fibre-based cabling to small, in-building cells, signal boosters and antennas — is an economic model that only works if all players take part.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.