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To Wire or Not: The Imperatives of a Wireless Infrastructure

February 18, 2008
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The supply and demand for commercial office space is shaped by a changing array of enhancements that continually redefine Class A space. Increasingly, building owners understand that prospective tenants are looking beyond marble and glass lobbies to functionality. In a workspace world driven by fluctuating global trends and demands for anytime, anywhere information, wireless technologies are becoming dominant. A flexible wireless infrastructure that supports IT networks, phone systems, security applications, HVAC, lighting, and more is emerging as a surefire way to increase the value of commercial office space.

Commercial office space is poised on the cusp of a fundamental transformation from wired to wireless building infrastructures. Whether building owners and developers realize it or not, the proliferation of wireless technologies, the need for workplace flexibility, and the demand for efficiency and productivity are driving this transformation.

A well-designed wireless infrastructure benefits both building owners and tenants. In the past five years, wireless technologies and devices have gone from novelties to essential business tools. Today businesses rely on two-way radio, cellular and PCS telephone, as well as voiceover IP telephone, high-speed data (wireless LAN), paging, asset management with radio-frequency tagging and tracking, and inventory management. Building automation, security and access control, and fire and life safety control applications are also becoming wireless. In-building wireless communication between devices, such as between a thermostat and an HVAC controller, or between various other kinds of sensors and controllers, is becoming commonplace, helping improve all aspects of indoor life.

For building owners and developers, therefore, a wireless infrastructure provides a high-value amenity that helps attract tenants and commands premium rents. It can enhance an owner’s reputation for quality and technology leadership, increase return on investment for each property, and add to the market value of the company’s real estate portfolio. According to the In-Building Wireless Alliance (IBWA), the aggregate value of an in-building wireless infrastructure can exceed $10 per square foot per year1. The study found that, “The top dimensions of value identified are the potential for increased communications, cost avoidance, an ability to market ‘differentiated real estate,’ the opportunity for increased revenue generation, and improved in-building tenant/visitor productivity.”

A wireless infrastructure also effectively creates more occupied space within a facility. Without the necessity of ubiquitous wired connections for phones, computers, etc., buildings have fewer architectural constraints. Fewer telecom and IT network closets for housing a maze of wires are required. It eliminates the mass of wires snaking across ceilings, opening up that space and increasing the perceived size of a given workspace.

FUTURE-PROOF YOUR BUILDING

Perhaps the most important benefit of a wireless infrastructure for both owners and tenants is that it creates a future-ready building. Spaces can be easily changed because there are no computer ports to move, no sensor wiring to move, no phone lines to move. Companies can modify workplaces and shift around employees within their facilities as business demands rather than as the building infrastructure dictates. In addition, because access points can be added on the edges of occupant spaces, network bandwidth can be easily expanded without disrupting tenants.

A wireless infrastructure also facilitates more accurate charge-backs to tenants, based on actual use rather than simply the number of phone or network ports installed. This both improves tenant satisfaction and increases revenue potential.

IMPROVED SAFETY AND COMFORT

A wireless infrastructure also creates a more comfortable and safe indoor environment - more cost effectively. CCTV is a very valuable tool to help ensure the safety of building occupants, but also can be expensive. Strategic decisions must be made as to where security cameras are placed, based on how spaces are typically used. However, that can leave an infrequently used conference room, for example, unmonitored. Yet if a high-level meeting is scheduled for that room, involving many outside participants, the lack of a security camera becomes a problem. That problem is eliminated with a wireless infrastructure because security cameras don’t have to be wired into place. They can be moved around as need dictates.

The same is true of temperature sensors. When a thermostat is fixed to one place on the wall, perhaps near a computer that throws off a lot of heat, it makes the thermostat think the room is warmer than it is, leaving occupants to shiver. When temperature sensors can be moved around, even placed on a desk or worn on a belt, it helps regulate temperatures where people actually are working.

In an emergency, a wireless infrastructure facilitates increased security. It enables first responder connectivity within the building. The infrastructure creates a coverage blanket for emergency radio frequencies, allowing fire and police channels to be heard clearly in any part of the facility.

Wireless location aware systems within the facility allow occupants to be located via a RF location system (RFLS) in their ID badges. So for example, if there was a fire and a group of occupants was clustered on the 7th floor, the system could pinpoint their location, use the HVAC system to bring fresh air to the occupied area while stopping airflow feeding the fire, and turn on evacuation lights that point the way to the best exit. The interface with first responders would also help firefighters pinpoint the employees’ location. Such an infrastructure might have avoided the tragedy a few years ago when several people were overcome by smoke after being trapped in a stairwell during a fire in a state office building in Chicago.

BETTER INFORMATION EQUALS REDUCED ENERGY AND OPERATING COSTS

A wireless infrastructure that integrates HVAC, lighting, and security systems can have a big impact on energy and operating costs for a building, as well as overall occupant efficiency. Wireless occupancy sensors can change heating and cooling setpoints and adjust lighting based on whether someone is using a particular part of the building.

Wireless temperature sensors provide more data more quickly to the HVAC system. That granularity of information allows the system to fine tune heating and cooling for a particular floor or section of the floor, rather than the entire building.

A wireless infrastructure helps ensure more uptime for all building systems. It enables instant communication anywhere within a building, for fast response to trouble calls. A real-time connection to a spare parts database means any problem can be fixed promptly. Building systems can be monitored remotely and controlled remotely to address any operational issue.

For occupants, an RFLS system for shared office equipment such as portable projectors, laptops, digital cameras, etc., ensures that employees can find the equipment they need when they need it, boosting efficiency. In addition, it reduces shrinkage.

While a wireless infrastructure may currently be slightly more expensive to install than a wired system, operating and energy savings over the life of the building deliver an excellent return on that investment. And with technology advances, the differential between wired and wireless infrastructure installation costs will continue to shrink.

THE QUESTION OF NETWORK SECURITY

The question of whether integrating IT and other building system networks into one wireless infrastructure would overload the infrastructure has largely disappeared because all building systems - HVAC, lighting, security - cumulatively operate at a low bandwidth. However, the issue of network security in an integrated wireless building infrastructure continues to keep people from fully embracing the concept.

IT network security is typically very robust, as it needs to be for confidential business information, financial data, and other common network communications. Temperature and occupancy sensors, HVAC, and lighting systems also have encrypted security and data authentication. They operate according to 802.11 WiFi and ZigBee standards, and each of those incorporates a security standard that is appropriate to the lower bandwidth those building systems use, and to the nature of the data being communicated. Temperature readings are simply not as sensitive as financial data.

Taken together, the advantages of a well-designed wireless building infrastructure are compelling. One business sector - health care - has already seen the advantages and embraced them, installing wireless patient monitoring, asset-tracking, temperature-control systems, and more. Commercial real estate owners are poised to do the same.

Footnote:
1. “Accelerating the Adoption of In-Building Wireless (IBW) as an Enabler of Information Utility,” IBWA 2005.

Publication date: 02/18/2008

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