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5G and Apartments: Never Too Early to Plan

By Joe Bousquin

The promise of 5G inspires all kinds of possibilities, from driverless cars that can respond instantaneously to traffic changes, or even surgeons operating remotely, via a video feed and robotics, on a patient half a world away. For apartments, the possibilities are also endless. Find out what 5G could mean for the industry.

Fascination collides with implementation for the latest cellphone phenomenon.

When it comes to technology, being early can be just as bad as getting it wrong in the first place. For 5G, the next evolution of cellular technology, it’s still very early, especially when it comes to apartments. But that doesn’t mean operators are ignoring it altogether.

Verizon and AT&T announced preliminary 5G services in select cities in late 2018, but observers say widespread availability and adoption is still several years away.

“The evolution is going to take some time,” says Marcie Williams, President of Charlotte, N.C.-based RKW Residential, a third-party manager of more than 13,000 units. “5G is coming, but it’s not here yet. The network still has to be built out.”

Big Potential

The promise of 5G is tantalizing. Its improved speed – 10 Gb per second – is 100 times faster than the current 4G LTE standard, with about 20 times lower latency, the response time it takes for a data packet to travel round trip between two points. Those advancements, still largely theoretical, inspire all kinds of possibilities, from driverless cars that can respond instantaneously to traffic changes, or even surgeons operating remotely, via a video feed and robotics, on a patient half a world away.

For apartments, the potential lands closer to home.

“The possibilities are endless,” says Mark Zikra, Vice President of Technology for Chicago-based developer and management firm CA Ventures, which operates 25,000 units. “Our devices need to communicate with each other seamlessly. Adding 5G unlocks all of that without wires, or even hubs.”Zikra imagines beacons in fitness centers that detect occupancy loads and adjusts thermostats, accordingly. Or sensors that identify water leaks, and know a window is open when it’s 20 degrees out, but the heat is on. Access and security systems could make big gains, too. “It begins to make our buildings work for themselves.”

Look! No Wires!

5G’s promise begs an even bigger question that’s been in the back of operators’ minds for decades: Will there eventually come a day when cellular becomes so good that I don’t have to wire my building at all? “That’s really the million-dollar question,” Zikra says.

The answer, at least today, is still a resounding, “No.” And it will probably remain so, as the laws of physics and thermodynamics hold true in our world. That’s because the new construction materials that do such a great job at making apartments more efficient today -- like low-e glass and structured insulated panels -- by keeping energy inside the building envelope, also do a great job at keeping it out, even in the form of cellular RF radio waves.

That’s why many operators invested in 4G LTE distributed antenna systems (DAS) inside their buildings to ensure that solid signals are sent to their apartments, especially in concrete-and-steel structures.

“The first thing people do when they’re looking for an apartment is whip out their cellphone to make sure they’ve got strong coverage,” Williams says. “It’s extremely important to provide a strong signal in every corner of the building.”

5G won’t change any of that. “I imagine it will still be a requirement in the 5G era to include small cells throughout the building when we have broad scale adoption,” Zikra says.

Revenue Opportunities

Those “small cell” antennas Zikra mentions are at the core of 5G’s advancements. One reason 5G can make the jump to 10Gbps at lower latency is because it uses a higher frequency than 4G. But those higher frequencies don’t travel as far as 4G – just 1,000 feet versus 10 miles. That means more antennas – potentially millions nationwide – will be needed to cover the same areas.

That’s also why initially 5G will only be available in large cities -- carriers will roll out the infrastructure in more densely populated areas at first. One advantage for property owners, in that regard, may be the ability to lease more antenna space to those carriers on the roofs of their buildings.

“We recently have had a lot more interest from the carriers and their contractors in terms of putting cell towers on our properties,” says Stuart Zelmanovitz, Owner of Suffern, N.Y.-based Yellowstone Property Group, which owns 600 units in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. “Depending on the size and how many antennas they put up, it can result in additional income of $6,000 to $20,000 a year.”

Because of the high costs of deploying more small cells to make 5G feasible, carriers won’t be as gung-ho as in the past to help apartment owners ensure residents have coverage inside their buildings.

“Carriers used to be pretty eager to install DAS systems in high-density buildings to gain new subscribers and improve the user experience,” says Keith Pennachio, Executive Vice President at Edgewood, N.J.-based integrator SQUAN. “Today, they want capital contributions from developers and building owners to support a DAS installation.”

He estimates that the cost of that contribution for owners to range from $2 to $3 per square foot and expects 5G’s phased deployment to span the next five to seven years. Zirka sees prices anywhere from $1.50 to $2.15 per square foot for a turn-key solution, which includes the cellular carrier negotiation, and often Public Safety Broadcasting systems (fire department repeaters), which are increasingly required in high-rise buildings.

Wait and See, But be Ready

With a five-plus year timeline, apartment operators are taking a wait-and-see approach, while recommending contingency planning for the future. “At this point, I can’t stomp my foot down and tell my owners they have to put 5G antennas in place now,” Williams says. “But I do think they need to plan on the contingency for it.”

At CA Ventures, that means running excess conduit, and setting up its existing wired backbones in its buildings to be easily expanded to the needs of 5G down the road. “We’re planning for it by adding pathways and cabling for additional devices and small cells, if and when the time comes,” Zikra says. “Doing that during construction, of course, is a lot cheaper than a retrofit.”

Health Hazard

Apartment operators may have another area to think about when it comes to 5G. Just as health advocates have voiced concern over increased exposure to radiation from cellphones in general, 5G’s use of more small cells, which in apartment buildings would be deployed where people live, has caused observers to take pause.

In a recent hearing, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), grilled industry executives for what he considered their laissez-faire attitude toward the unknowns of 5G’s potential health implications, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich penned an editorial in which he stressed the need for more research in this area. From that perspective, apartment operators may not just need to figure out how to get the best 5G coverage in their buildings, but also its health implications to their residents.

“With 5G infrastructure giving off RF emissions much closer to where people live, work and play, it’s an important component to make sure people are comfortable with this technology,” says Gary Resnick , an attorney and shareholder who focuses on telecom at law firm Gray|Robinson. “There are important issues to be resolved as 5G gets rolled out.”

It’s something that weights on Yellowstone’s Zelmanovitz, as well.

“The potential health impacts just haven't been studied yet,” he says. “So, that’s the only aspect where we’re hesitant, in terms of loading up more cell towers in close proximity to our residents.”

His plan for now is to continue to monitor the situation -- another example of an apartment owner planning for the future, while taking a wait-and-see approach to 5G.