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5G and Wifi 6: What they Mean for Multifamily

5G and Wifi 6 multifamily_ homebase

Yesterday, Sprint rolled out what is arguably the most reliable 5G network in the world. Starting in four cities—Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Homebase’s hometown of Kansas City—Sprint 5G will extend to several more locations in the next few weeks.

Sprint is the third major carrier to launch 5G, and while coverage is still limited, the hype around the new network is real: 5G will be a game-changer. As Digital Trends says, it’s more than just a faster network. “It’s a massive breakthrough that’s going to change the way devices connect to the internet, and more importantly, to each other.”

Wifi 6 is another breakthrough technology going mainstream this year. Though it doesn’t have the same news coverage as 5G, its impact will be just as significant (and in some cases, even more so).

What do these new technologies mean for the future of multifamily? Let’s take a look at what to expect in the years ahead.

First, a little background on 5G

There are several great 5G explainer articles on the internet already, so we will just cover the basics.

5G is the latest generation cellular data network that is promising speeds 5-10 times faster than 4G. Not only is it fast, but 5G will allow data to be shared in near real-time. It can also support more devices: One million in just one square kilometer, compared to 4G’s one million in 500 square kilometers.

What does all this mean for the end user? Sure, you can download Ironman 2 in just 90 seconds while walking down the street, but there are more important and practical implications as well.

Primarily, 5G will enable innovations that require real-time data-sharing like autonomous vehicles, robotic surgical arms, and online gaming. Imagine playing an online multiplayer RPG (role-playing game), on your phone, with no lag, while driving down the street in your AV. 5G is a major step to making this possible.

What 5G Means for Multifamily

If you’re like us and believe the future of multifamily and transportation are inextricably linked, then 5G will be as revolutionary as everyone says it will. Think about the value of having a fleet of autonomous vehicles as an amenity.

But if we’re strictly speaking about 5G inside multifamily communities, then the impact will be a little less dramatic. At least at first. Here’s why:

True 5G is still several years out  

5G may be rolling out in select cities today, but it will take years before infrastructure is built to support the widespread coverage we’ve come to expect. It’s not as simple as replacing existing cellular towers, either.

Thanks to 5G’s shorter wavelengths, it does not have the same coverage distance as 4G or 3G. 5G requires antennas on nearly every block, and if you lose sight of an antenna, you’ve likely lost coverage.

We’re still looking at 3-4 years before the network is reliable across the country.

radio frequency spectrum showing bandwidth of 5G

5G radio waves are significantly shorter than 4G. This makes 5G more powerful, but also more fragile and with shorter coverage distances. Source: Qualcomm

5G’s most pressing challenge is buildings

Again, thanks to 5G’s short wavelengths, it is also a very fragile network. 5G is easily disrupted by walls, windows, and even rain. Bringing 5G inside buildings will be the “last frontier” for the new network. If you think cell service in your building is bad now, it will be nearly non-existent without significant infrastructure upgrades for 5G.

Security concerns

Cybersecurity is a serious concern with IoT devices in general, and 5G accentuates those concerns. With faster speeds, higher capacity, and lower latency, the opportunity for catastrophic data breaches has never been higher. Technology leaders around the world are working on this problem as we speak, but no standard agreement has been reached yet.

Cost

Once 5G becomes the new standard, it will save carriers and users a lot of money thanks to its efficiency. But compared to a fixed network (like Wifi 6, which we’ll get to in a minute), cellular service will always be more expensive. Even though 5G is capable of supporting a building full of always-on IoT devices, it might not make sense from an economic standpoint.

5G is exciting for many reasons and will indeed have a big influence on the multifamily industry. But the most significant breakthrough will still come from wifi.  

Wifi 6: The True Game-Changer for Multifamily

Not to take anything away from 5G, but Wifi 6 is going to make the biggest difference in the multifamily industry, both near-term and long-term.

Wifi 6 is the newest Wifi standard and the successor to 802.11ac (now called Wifi 5). It is rolling out across the country in 2019, and Wifi 6 routers are already on the market.

Wifi 6 is doing for Wifi what 5G is doing for cellular data: It’s faster, has higher capacity and lower latency. That means it can support more devices in each building and give residents the download speeds they crave.

While the theoretical speed of Wifi 6 of three times faster than its predecessor, that’s not the most important innovation. The real breakthrough with Wifi 6 is its increased bandwidth, which is crucial as we approach 30 billion IoT devices by 2020.

Wifi 6’s Impact on Multifamily

In the multifamily world (and in commercial buildings in general), Wifi 6 will have a massive impact in 2019 and beyond. It has several advantages over 5G for smart multifamily buildings:

  • Less infrastructure. Unlike 5G, Wifi 6 is simply a new standard rather than a new network. That means the only upgrades needed are new routers and new devices. No need to rewire your building or install antennas.
  • More Secure. Wifi 6 will also come with the biggest wifi security update in a decade. Last year, the Wifi Alliance introduced WPA3, a new protocol that makes it harder for hackers to break into your accounts. WPA3 is optional on Wifi 5 devices, but will be required for Wifi 6 devices.
  • Less Expensive. As a fixed network, Wifi 6 is inherently less expensive than cellular data, especially if your building owns its own network.  
  • More IoT Devices. The most important benefit of Wifi 6 for multifamily properties is the ability to support more devices. Like 5G, Wifi 6 has vastly improved device capacity, making it the ideal network for smart buildings.

Wifi 6 will have a more immediate impact on multifamily properties than 5G. It will also be a better long-term solution, but in reality, 5G and Wifi 6 will work together as one.

5G and Wifi 6: Working in Unison

It’s important to remember that 5G and Wifi 6 isn’t an either/or discussion. In the near future, residents might not even notice which network they are on.

Technology companies like Cisco are working on ways to make connectivity seamless from network to network. With Cisco’s Open Roaming project (currently in beta), residents can stream a movie in their apartment over wifi, then walk outside and switch to data without interruption. Because of the comparable speeds between 5G and Wifi 6, residents will never notice the difference.

5G and Wifi 6 are both huge leaps forward for IoT, especially in the multifamily industry. While the technology is amazing in itself, they point to a larger, more essential trend: Resident demand for connectivity has never been higher, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Blake Miller

Author Blake Miller

Blake Miller is the Founder and CEO of Homebase.ai a connected building solution for multi-family housing and the Host of The Future of Living Podcast.

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