Wiring legacy buildings with cost-effective broadband: Putcha

Shiv Putcha


As economies around the world rebound from the pandemic, there are significant variations in the pace and strength of the recovery. The one segment that has seen consistent growth across markets and regions is the demand for high-speed broadband access.

The pandemic elevated the importance of broadband connectivity and digital technologies for work, school and play. The crucial first step was for workers, students, and consumers to stay connected to their workplace, schools and applications. With work, study and play now becoming untethered to a specific physical location, the network needs to adapt, and telcos across the globe have performed admirably under extreme conditions to “keep the lights on” and their customers connected.

Much of the focus on broadband has been on building out or upgrading transport networks or in the last mile access networks, where there has been significant activity in fiber passes for neighborhoods as well as increasing activity in 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) as a new access technology. However, these technologies are very much focused on “wide area” or macro connectivity. In other words, while significant work has been done to bring broadband to the home, premise or even the curb, not enough focus has gone into bringing quality and cost-effective broadband indoors. This is particularly true for residential consumers living in multi-dwelling unit (MDU) legacy or “brownfield” buildings and venue sites, as opposed to single unit homes.

Legacy cabling and civil construction costs are huge barriers

There are several challenges to be overcome to bring broadband indoors, especially for MDUs or apartment buildings. Many of these MDUs are legacy buildings, with construction starts ranging from ten to fifty plus years ago in cases. In the United States alone, nearly twenty million households qualify as MDUs. If you expand that by the number of apartments within each MDU, the demand for broadband expands significantly. Of course, broadband is not an issue for many of the new housing starts in the U.S., with developers incorporating high-speed broadband into their designs from the beginning. In the legacy MDUs, if they do have wiring for internet access, the cables are Cat 5 at best. However, Cat 5 is an aging technology today and cannot support speeds above 1 Gbps. Similarly, several buildings might have Distributed Access Systems (DAS) deployed but again, this is an aging technology that is roadmap limited in terms of capacity.

As a result of this antiquated cabling, the bigger challenge is how can MDUs be retrofitted cost-effectively with new backbone networks to deploy the latest Wi-Fi 6/7 access points? For one thing, installing new cabling is a highly disruptive process for tenants, with plenty of drilling and noise. In many cases, individual tenants end up opting for alternative arrangements or simply choosing to stay put with the legacy infrastructure. This dilutes the business case but can also result in a mash up of access technologies within the same MDU.

Beyond the disruptive aspects of deploying new cabling, there is also the challenge of the ease of installation and the knock-on effect this can have on costs. Running new cables through the existing ducts (if they exist at all), is also a tedious job and can be expensive. MDUs are also looking at installing IoT endpoints like smart locks, cameras and HVAC controls. To support broadband access as well as new use cases, there needs to be a single backbone network that can be cost-effective to install as well as provides a consistent user experience.   

Wireless backhaul is a new innovation for the indoor problem

Wireless has typically been associated with Wi-Fi and access points. More recently, there has been some movement towards bringing 5G cellular technology indoors by utilizing mmWave relays and other products. But still, the primary focus for retrofitting of MDUs has been on new cabling supporting new Wi-Fi 6 and 7 access points. There is, however, an argument to be made for utilizing wireless technology instead for the backbone network to solve the challenges of cost and capacity that are currently constraining these retrofits.

A recent example of this approach has been Airvine, a Bay Area firm, focused on solving the problems of indoor broadband. Airvine has approached the problem in a unique way. The first pillar of their strategy is focused on using wireless for the indoor backhaul network. Their flagship product, the WaveTunnel, has been designed to fit to ceiling walls at various points on a given floor. Each of these devices can be set up quickly by fixing a bracket and then snapping on the Wave Tunnel device onto the bracket. Power can be drawn through a standard AC supply. Each WaveTunnel can currently support four Ethernet ports which in turn can support a range of endpoints, including Wi-Fi 6 or 7, 5G NR small cells or IoT devices.

The second pillar of Airvine’s strategy is to connect multiple WaveTunnel devices on a given floor configuration to each other over 60 GHz frequency. The large channel sizes in the 60 GHz bands are ideal for high capacity and low latency backhaul. Another notable feature of the WaveTunnel system is that it uses advanced beam steering techniques to “bend” the signals around walls and barriers. In other words, they are non-line of sight (NLOS), which solves a major constraint with previous 60GHz wireless systems. Going a step further, the WaveTunnel is also able to penetrate most indoor walls. Of course, concrete is not currently supported but the company has indicated that it will be supported in future releases. Lastly, the entire network is brought together for easy management through the VineSuite software.

Taking a wireless approach to indoor backhaul can be a game changer for the smart building industry, by bringing legacy and brownfield MDUs and venues into the addressable market. Once the wireless beams are able to penetrate concrete walls, then the addressable market gets much bigger. Retrofitting of these units will bring cost-effective broadband access without sacrificing capacity.

Shiv Putcha is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Mandala Insights, an independent, boutique analyst firm that offers insights, opinions and research on the network and emerging technologies that will drive the next billion digital opportunities in Asia. Shiv is also keenly focused on the intersection of rising enterprise productivity, Industry 4.0 and 5G. Prior to founding Mandala, Shiv covered the telecommunications industry in Asia-Pacific for IDC and Ovum, along with stints at the Yankee Group, Qualcomm and LogicaCMG while based in the United States.

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