The race to 5G—the fifth generation of cellular network technology—has been marked with promises of a network that will allow phones and other devices to connect to the internet at blazing speeds. At the heart of 5G is a new kind of cellular antenna, sometimes referred to as a node or sensor, that is quite unlike the towers powering the current standard, 4G LTE.
Unlike 4G LTE towers, which are tall structures with a long range, 5G relies on a dense network of nodes and 5G-equipped mobile devices, even though only three such phones are on the market today. And beneath 5G towers, which are expected to significantly outnumber 4G towers because their signal has a short range, is a network of fiber, providing the high-speed data that makes 5G possible.
Industry experts say 5G has the potential to transform everything from public transit and education to surgical procedures. However, years of work lie ahead before North Texans can begin reaping the benefits.
Despite this, everyone from real estate developers to innovation leaders are working to be ready when 5G happens. Take, for example, the Howard Hughes Corp. The developer is working now to outfit its new projects with 5G capability. Jim McCaffrey, senior vice president of development, says Monarch City—an mixed-use community that’s in the works in Allen—is being developed with 5G in mind from day one. That means taking advantage of a massive network of fiber and nearby data centers, while talking with network providers to offer tenants leverage when choosing a 5G network. It also means chasing a coveted designation: the Wired Certification from WiredScore.
According to WiredScore, the certification is given to developments that empower “landlords to understand, improve, and promote their buildings’ digital infrastructure.”
Mark Dowdle, who heads up local operations for WiredScore, says qualifying neighborhoods must be at least 4 million square feet with a certain percentage dedicated to office space. Furthermore, every building in the development has to be Wired certified. Reaching this point, however, is easier said than done. Dowdle says part of obtaining that certification is making sure developments have a network of fiber running through them so tenants can seamlessly access 5G when the network comes online.
In an effort to reach this point, The Howard Hughes Corp. has upgraded its in-building network design to accommodate 5G, and it is already paying off for the company in Chicago. “We’re actually finding ourselves on the bleeding edge, while some of the carriers haven’t even yet determined what radio frequencies they’ll be using,” McCaffrey says of the 110 North Wacker building in Chicago. “We’re upgrading our infrastructure backbone, both vertically throughout the core and horizontally across the floor—for the denser antenna network.”
Investing heavily in internal network infrastructure is a necessary move for developers and building owners hoping to remain competitive and provide 5G connectivity, Dowdle says. “If you think your mobile phone coverage in your building now, with your 4G signal, is terrible, just wait until 5G gets here,” he says. “If you’re in a LEED-certified building that may use low-E glass or has the film on the glass, that’s great for HVAC, sustainability, energy consumption, and those things. But it’s also a blocker for your 5G signal and your 4G signal.”
In other words, because 5G antennas operate on even shorter wavelengths than 4G antennas, and because buildings tend to block mobile signal, designing developments accordingly is necessary.
Mike Zeto, AT&T’s vice president of IoT solutions, says the mobile provider, along with others, offers helpful solutions to kickstart 5G-forward developments. “We now act more as a master systems integrator, working with large developers and venue owners and operators and stadiums than just as connectivity providers,” Zeto says. “It’s really important to get the AT&Ts of the world involved early in that design and engineering phase. It’s really important to have an infrastructure plan in place.”
Creating Digital Equity
Trey Bowles, co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, says developers like The Howard Hughes Corp. are also able to provide 5G access to underserved communities in Dallas through the city’s Opportunity Zones. Bowles says developers can create equity while developing, doing business, and creating jobs in these areas, much like how Monarch City is bringing 5G to a community that’s rising from a greenfield site. “A lot of times with these greenfield development opportunities, you can put in infrastructure—the correct infrastructure for the future—from day one,” Bowles says. “And you’re probably doing that mostly in economically disadvantaged areas. At least that was the intent for Opportunity Zone creation.”
But creating equitable mobile access and closing the digital divide can’t be done singlehandedly. Because the 5G network requires substantial infrastructure, Bowles says the question comes down to one thing: Who is willing to pay for it? “Does the city pay for it? Do the private developers pay for it? Is it some sort of public-private partnership? Do the telecom companies pay for it? The wireless providers themselves? And I think the answer is yes,” he says.
Bowles says in his ideal world, a combination of partners will join forces to make accessible 5G feasible as soon as possible. And that approach might not be as far fetched as one might expect.
Sprint’s vice president of 5G development, Mishka Dehghan, says large and small cities across the country have approached the wireless carrier asking for help rolling out 5G. Although the company is namely focused on dense urban areas, an unexpected partnership is helping bring 5G to Greenville, South Carolina.“They came to us with a solid public-private partnership that they had formed,” Dehghan says. “The project was really spearheaded by the public entities of Greenville, but they already had the backing of a number of private organizations.”
In it For the Long Haul
Dehghan says 5G’s impact will be significant for real estate developers and should be thought of as the “fifth utility” that landlords must provide tenants: “It’s not just an afterthought; this is something they need to work very closely with [network] operators on when they do the planning for their projects.” Yet, even as efforts to accelerate the 5G rollout ramp up, an obvious question remains: How long until technology evolves, rendering 5G infrastructure obsolete?
Jennifer Sanders, co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, said she thinks there’s time to spare. “I personally have to think that from an R&D standpoint, and kind of from that timeline, it’s going to have longevity,” she says.
McCaffrey of Howard Hughes Corp. agrees, saying, “our marketplace is not really going to support radical changes every five years.” And even if the technology does fade into obscurity, he says, the risk outweighs the reward. “Obsolescence is real; it happens,” he says. “You have to have capital expenditures for your buildings. Just like how your brick and mortar deteriorates over time, your technology deteriorates over time.”
The bottom line? It’s advantageous to be on the bleeding edge of technology. On the other hand, it’s also fine to wait and see how technology evolves. Although 5G is a year or two away from becoming widely implemented, the only wrong move is ignoring it completely.
Payton Potter is a Dallas-based business journalist specializing in innovation and technology.