5G ON SITE
By JASON FALOVOConstruction
Tapping generation wireless platforms for next generation construction sites.
From two-way radios to the now-shuttered Clearnet Mike push-to-talk mobile phone network, wireless technology has been used on construction sites for decades. More recently, site communication has meant not just speaking from a distance, but also sharing digital drawings, photos and videos.
This new way of working means jobsites must be connected to the internet. That can be hard to achieve when infrastructure is yet to be built, but Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWANs) and the latest generation of cellular technology, 5G, fit the bill to help move data throughout the construction lifecycle.
A NEW GENERATION OF WIRELESS
A WWAN is a telecommunications network that uses public or private cellular routers or adapters as infrastructure to connect various networks and cloud servers. Enterprise WANs allow users to share access to applications, services, and other centrally located resources. WWANs connect people, places and things anywhere, and have become a staple of enterprise networking.
Cellular wireless has always been ideal for failover and connecting critical assets in places wires can’t go, and today’s cellular networks are more pervasive and getting faster with the deployment of Gigabit-Class LTE and 5G. With flat-rate pricing beginning to eliminate overage anxiety, WWAN is becoming the preferred broadband connectivity for fixed sites.
5G, in particular, has been getting a lot of attention as it continues to roll out across Canada. If you replaced your phone in the last year or two, there’s a good chance it has a 5G modem in it. The specification uses more channels than 4G, which means faster data transfers. It can handle more devices at once, and is better-suited to managing the array of smart devices and sensors now involved in the construction workflow. It is also more responsive.
The 5G specification includes low-band frequencies, which are about as fast as 4G, and mid-band and high-band frequencies that can be 10 times faster.
THE NEXT-GENERATION SITE
What does this mean for construction? The amount of data flowing through a modern construction site requires a reliable and fast internet connection that can’t always be provided by Wi-Fi, especially in the early stages of a project.
5G can deliver a fast wireless connection to a site with less of an investment in hardware. A traditional wired connection can take up to 120 working days to set up, and it’s costly to relocate wires as a project proceeds. In contrast, 5G can be deployed earlier, easier and with less hardware. Set up can be handled at a central office and remote sites can be deployed within a day.
The technology supports connection-dependent activities that are already happening on construction sites. For example, drones serve many functions in the industry: gathering visual information that can be used to create topographic maps and 3D models, assessing the location of equipment, taking measurements, and creating photo and video records of a project’s progress. All of this involves a lot of data.
But the need for bandwidth is only part of the story because drones need to be piloted. With 5G’s low latency, they can be operated from a distance without lag.
Sensors are also playing a greater role in the industry, during and after construction. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can detect humidity levels that might affect materials and detect gas and chemical leaks. Smart sensors affixed to rebar and embedded in concrete aggregate can send data to the cloud via 5G. This helps ensure the quality of the work and minimizes guesswork.
Sensors can also help track assets on sites, note when supplies are needed, and mark when they have been delivered.
Other devices on sites include cameras, which capture photos and videos to track project progress, provide security and identify safety issues. Those files need to be transferred, usually in real-time. Additionally, wireless WAN is an excellent solution for mobility applications. Managing fleets, providing in-vehicle Wi-Fi for mobile data transfers, and video surveillance for added security can all be enabled using the same 5G network infrastructure.
Contractors are also increasingly turning to specialized construction management software to manage all this information. This software, too, needs connectivity in the field.
Superintendents now walk sites, tablets in hand, accessing BIM documents, drawings, project specifications and worker schedules. The digitization of construction management started with obvious quality-of-life improvements, such as being able to send new drawings from the office to the field instantly, and has seen the emphasis shift from physical documents and disparate programs and files to comprehensive platforms that manage all aspects of a project.
Setting up a WWAN must factor in several considerations. For example, will the network be in place to enhance network failover or to augment existing network bandwidth? Will it be the primary link, such as in the case of an unserviced jobsite, where there are no wires to connect to?
An enterprise network solution provider – in particular one focused on wireless network edge solutions – can help to assess the best strategy and determine the scale of the deployment needed for a particular site.
5G will not be an option for every construction site and it isn’t available in every city, so companies considering using it should assess availability as a first step. As well, local coverage and speeds can vary.
The nature of high-band frequencies means 5G signals behave a little differently than 4G as well. The higher frequencies offer greater speed and bandwidth but carry over a shorter distance; about 500 meters. The signal can be degraded by brick, cement, and the human body. Low-band and mid-band 5G frequencies are less prone to signal attenuation, while still offering high speeds and low latency.
As with any technology implementation, companies should understand any security-related considerations.
Fortunately, 5G was developed with security in mind and will scramble communications between a user’s device and a cell tower. It also allows for different networks to use the same infrastructure but be separated from each other. This could allow a company to provide subcontractors with access to one network through on-site hardware, but not another containing sensitive files.
While 5G includes built-in security enhancements, it also introduces more complexity. With more IoT devices, there is more risk of compromise. To mitigate security risks, contractors can turn to new security measures such as zero trust network authentication (ZTNA), and practices like keeping devices updated with the latest software and creating back-ups of data. As construction becomes more reliant on data, there’s a need for high-speed internet connection, which 5G can provide.
Jason Falovo is vice-president and general manager, Canada at Cradlepoint, a leader in LTE and 5G wireless network edge solutions.