Faster connections. Less lag time. Ability to connect more devices simultaneously. These three benefits of a 5G wireless network have the potential to significantly affect productivity, safety and quality on a construction site, but how soon will contractors actually be able to access a 5G network?
Two major carriers — Verizon and AT&T — advertised the launch of their 5G networks beginning in 2019, but initial access to enhanced networks were located in few major cities. The continued rollout of the networks was slowed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as the carriers continue expanding the network, it is important to note that the initial focus will be on larger urban areas, then move to smaller cities and suburbs, and finally into more rural areas.
The typical implementation of any new service for wireless carriers focuses on providing coverage first to areas where people work, which means urban areas with dense office space making sense for the first area of deployment, explains Keith Pennachio, chief strategy officer and executive vice president of SQUAN. “The next areas to launch new services, including 5G, would be locations where people live, and then where they play,” he says. This strategy means that a city like New York, which has a dense number of work locations as well as residences, is likely to use the technology first.” The pandemic and the shift to entire workforces working remotely from home, may affect some timelines to moving to areas that people live, he adds.
Although a national 5G network is not yet available, and there are few devices designed to work with 5G technology, Pennachio believes that there will be dense adoption of the technology in the next 10 years, with contractors able to access and use it sooner in many areas.
In the meantime, members of the construction industry should understand the benefits of 5G, and the steps they need to take to prepare to implement it within their company and their jobsites.
“5G promises to be a new way of communicating, with many benefits for contractors,” says Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer, Oracle. Some of these benefits include:
“We all have 4G phones but 5G phones and devices will provide speeds of 1 gigabyte per second, which is 10 to 100 times faster than we cur-rently have,” says Kaplanoglu. “This will allow contractors to send large documents, such as 3D or 2D drawings with hundreds of pages, almost instantaneously and enable multiple users to interact with each other in real-time.”
Latency is the time required to get a reaction from another device. Lower latency will minimize the delays in videoconference calls that every-one has experienced in 2020, but it will also support higher level device operations in construction. “If I’m in Chicago, I can safely control a machine on a jobsite remotely because there is no lag time,” says Kaplanoglu. Rather than have operators travel to jobsites to physically sit on the machine, contractors can eliminate travel time and more effectively use the operators’ time.
CAPACITY TO CONNECT MORE DEVICES
“A large construction site might need thousands of sensors but 4G limits the number of devices — phones, tablets, sensors — that can be connected to the network at one location,” says Kaplanoglu. “5G technology can handle one million sensors per square kilometer.” This will en-sure connectivity on every size project as well as every type of location — urban or rural.
As telematics on construction equipment becomes more important to monitor maintenance needs and to identify causes of equipment failure, the ability to connect more devices increases in importance, says Kaplanoglu.
Greater coverage and the ability to connect more devices will increase the ability to use other technology, says Pennachio. These technologies include drones for inspections, closed circuit television via the wireless network to enhance safety, virtual or augmented reality that allows con-tractors and owners to “walk through the building” and see plumbing, electrical and other systems located behind walls, he says.
There are no disadvantages to adoption of 5G in the construction industry, says Pennachio. There is, however, a potential disadvantage of not adopting 5G when it is readily available, he says. “The lack of 5G capability in a company may make it more difficult to adopt new technology, leading to gaps in future tech adoption.”
While cost of new technology such as access to 5G and investment in devices that operate on the new network may make some contractors reluctant to adopt it, there can be some cost savings that will reduce the return on investment, suggests Kaplanoglu. “We currently use our mobile devices as computers that store information, but the improved speed, capacity and latency of 5G may mean that more can be done on the cloud, which reduces the need for mobile devices to store information,” he says. Because the mobile device will only be needed to collect and transmit data rather than collect, store, compute and transmit, the cost of devices should go down and battery life of the devices will be extend-ed, he says.
Although 5G may not be available nationwide yet, there are four steps contractors should be taking to prepare their companies to adopt it.
1. BE PREPARED TO HANDLE MORE DATA
Increased speed and capacity will mean more data collected from a myriad of sources, so contractors need to plan how they will manage the data, says Kaplanoglu. “Put a plan and processes in place now to better manage data you are collecting today to build a strong foundation for the exponentially greater volume of data 5G will provide,” he suggests.
2. EVALUATE NEED FOR NEW DEVICES
Inventory the devices that will need to be upgraded to 5G compatibility in offices and in the field, recommends Kaplanoglu. The actual upgrade will be in the future, but it is a good idea to know the scope of replacement that will be necessary.
3. DON’T FALL FOR THE HYPE
Pennachio offers a word of caution about devices now advertised as 5G. “This technology is much more about speed and capacity of a net-work, and less about specific products,” he says. “For example, a friend who was looking at purchasing drones noticed that the specifications said it had 5G capability.” Adding the term “5G” in a product description is a marketing tactic, because before the drone can operate better than other drones, there first has to be a 5G network in the location of the drone, he explains.
4. RESEARCH NETWORK AVAILABILITY AND APPLICATIONS
“There are degrees of 5G in operation in different places, but a contractor who wants to know exactly what is available in the area of a jobsite or company, should reach out to the major network operators in the area,” recommends Pennachio. “Each of them has specific divisions that focus on 5G and can discuss what is available.”
Contractors can also research applications that truly add value to the company’s operations, says Pennachio. “Consulting with companies that offer solutions is also an option, but be sure the consultant you choose to work with is neutral,” he says. Consultants who are not tied to one network provider will focus on your company’s needs to find the best solution, he adds.
Preparing to implement 5G technology before it is available everywhere will give the early-adopters a competitive edge with enhanced communication, says Kaplanoglu. Building the foundation to handle more data and understanding how the technology can improve operations will improve the results, he says. “You have time to get your house in order now.”