Industry News

Q&A: How a WiFi alternative can benefit construction

WiFi continues to be the networking infrastructure of choice for most enterprise applications, but some believe it has limited value in settings such as large construction sites and associated outdoor shipping yards. Challenges include distance, throughput and the difficulty of penetrating metal or concrete when using WiFi’s 2.5GHz and 5GHz radio-frequency spectrums.

Proponents of alternative technologies say private LTE and 5G networks solve these problems by operating in the 3.5GHz to 3.7GHz radio spectrum. They say the technology overcomes WiFi’s limitations and also requires fewer access points, reduces battery consumption, and enables connectivity in large outdoor environments where WiFi is simply not practical.

SmartBrief recently spoke with Rob Parsons, practice director, network and integrated security at Insight Enterprises, to learn how this alternative can help the construction industry address its networking challenges. This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

SmartBrief: Why is connectivity such a pain point for contractors?

Parsons: Traditional wireless connectivity has a limited range based on the frequency that is used by the wireless network. Whether it's 2.4 or 5 gigahertz, they both have different properties. When you start talking about at-scale wireless networks or a physical scale, you start to need a number of different access points to cover a specific environment. And with the growing number of access points, the complexity increases. Whether it's a mesh backhaul link or a wireless link between access points, you obviously hit a scaling limitation for however many hops you can go before you get back to a fiber or a wired ethernet connection. You all also have power limitations, so depending on what the site is or what it looks like, if it's construction, it may have temp power. It may not have power everywhere. You have limitations as far as where you can put access points to be able to cover a given area.

SmartBrief: What’s the alternative?

Parsons: What we've been talking about quite a lot lately on the wireless side of the house is something called Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS. And CBRS allows for a more cellular style network than traditional WiFi and that does a few things for us. It gives us a much broader coverage for a given number of access points.

SmartBrief: Can you provide an example of how CBRS works?

Parsons: One example is a power company that we're working with. We were looking at deploying wireless connectivity in some of their power plant-type facilities, which I would liken to a construction site in some ways. There was a very, very high cost to the ethernet to connect all the wireless access points. We were able to develop a solution to provide wireless coverage via CBRS, instead of WiFi, to that same area with a much reduced footprint of devices, of infrastructure, of ethernet, of fiber and of power. So CBRS gives us a lot of flexibility to do that. The endpoint devices require SIM cards and are very secure inherently as a result of that. There’s some cool stuff that we're able to do there. So from a construction perspective, if I think of new construction, where typically you have an activity and like a job site trailer, but maybe not throughout the high-rise or the building that's being put in place. Being able to leverage CBRS to interconnect all of the teams that are working in that environment to a common network can be very advantageous for the operations.

SmartBrief: Can you explain how the SIM cards contribute to security?

Parsons: Basically, each one of those SIM cards has to be validated by the network before it's able to achieve connectivity. It gives you a layer of physical security in that it does require that card before the device is able to authenticate. It’s slightly less flexible than traditional wireless networks where you're able to log in with a passphrase or username and password. However, CBRS being based on cellular does take it to that next level from a security perspective.

SmartBrief: What other drawbacks or limitations are there?

Parsons: You do need an evolved packet course where you translate the cellular connectivity that you achieve back into ether and connected to a traditional network. So you basically have the RAN, which is the radio access network that is required. And that's the radio frequency side of things. You have the EPC, which helps you to do that translation. And then you've got the SIM card and, I don't want to say procurement, but distribution of those SIM cards much like you would when you acquire a cell phone. In a retail sense, you need that card to be able to get onto the network.

SmartBrief: Do you have any other project examples?

Parsons: We've done a lot of work with the city of Tucson, Ariz, where we have designed and deployed a CBRS wireless network. Tucson is obviously an urban environment at its core, but it does spread into more rural areas, and ultimately that wireless network was initially designed to bridge what they call the digital divide and help students get to schools. Workers get to work virtually and remotely through the pandemic. Ultimately that infrastructure has a multitude of different use cases once it's in place. It can be used so the first responders could leverage it. City services could leverage it. In the desert Southwest, we would think of blocks or stucco and things like that. A 900 megahertz cellular network is going to do better at penetrating buildings from the outside than a 2.4 gigahertz WiFi network, and a 5 gigahertz WiFi network is not highly effective in an outdoor environment. Oftentimes, that's just used for backhaul. So, with CBRS operating in 3.5 gigahertz, it kind of splits the difference and gives you a solution that is closer to 2.4. It’s closer to a cellular solution with its ability to penetrate facilities and buildings from the outside. Whereas some of the higher frequency stuff, the 5 gigahertz, 6 gigahertz range may not be able to achieve a usable level of penetration.

SmartBrief: It seems there's also potential for CBRS in smart city applications that leverage 5G and the internet of things. Can you touch on that a little bit?

Parsons: Absolutely. The use cases for smart cities are really endless. The only limit is your imagination in a lot of ways. CBRS could be likened to 5G. It's closer to LTE at the moment, but you will see more 5G types of speeds come out of it in the very near future. As we think about smart cities, you think about some of the application use cases of anything from parking intelligence to public area loading, or understanding how many people or devices may be in a given area during an emergency response situation. So, there are a number of really smart city types of initiatives that are available leveraging this technology because of the scale that it gives us.