Invisible Infrastructure: How 5G Will Inform Design in a Wireless World

Paul Bestul, Associate, Virtual Reality Designer

It’s not easy being the “Next Generation.” Glimpses of the future generate excitement, anticipation, and not a little bit of concern. Assumptions are made, aspirations are set, generalizations are formed; there’s a lot to live up to and you’re behind before you start. No, I’m not talking about Millennials or GenZ, I’m talking about the next generation of communications technology: 5G.

At this moment in our current 4G system, mobile internet is convenient but limited. Data caps are established to provide sufficient bandwidth for the greatest number of people. Hitting this limit can drop your phone back to 2G speeds (unless you pay for the privilege to raise your own cap). Even when your data is not being throttled it’s still orders of magnitude slower and more volatile than a cable connection, as shown in the graphs below.

Network speed tests comparing a standard (non-premium) 4G connection (left) and a wi-fi connection (right).

While you probably won’t see 5G-compliant speeds for at least another year (the International Telecommunications Union established minimum specifications for 5G to be adopted around 2020, but a few choice cities are already seeing implementation), the fifth generation of cellular communication is already being hyped by all the major telecom companies as a world-changing innovation. While they have had similar marketing throughout the previous four generations, this time they may be selling it short; 5G is set to be the infrastructure on which all new mobile technologies will develop. Professionals in the AEC industry should be aware how our digital environment will increasingly influence our built environment.

4G allowed us to experience the joy of mobile streaming but 5G will support the continued growth of networked systems, supporting Internet-of-Things (IoT)-enabled devices and constantly moving targets like self-driving cars. Issues with bandwidth, latency, and speed will all be exacerbated as ever more internet-reliant components are added to the network. These are the issues that 5G is being built to solve, promising speeds and connection quality that will rival (and in some estimates even surpass) consumer Wi-Fi networks.

The infrastructure is coming. How might the architecture and planning communities take advantage of it?

Connect ALL the Things: The Ubiquity of IoT

One more example of how the future is here: The Smart Toaster.

Several years ago it was easy to scoff at the explosion of “smart” devices (why would a toaster ever need to be connected to the internet?), but the trend for IoT continues to be for more integration between devices, not less. Home security systems, thermostats, even baby monitors can all be connected to a smartphone through the internet, accessible from anywhere. Soon your alarm clock may be able to tell your coffee maker to prepare a cup before you walk into the kitchen first thing in the morning (an architect wishing for more convenient access to coffee, how shocking). The future is all about device interconnectivity and increased automation.

The major hurdle to this highly intertwined future is one of signal access and speed. It’s a small annoyance when a phone fails to connect in a basement, or parking garage, or in the elevator, or stairwells (etc. etc. etc.), but it could be disastrous if the same issue was occurring in a safety-critical system. In order to provide reliable and uniform coverage 5G networks are being built from the ground-up with small-cell technology: relay points that have shorter range than a typical cell tower but are spaced closer together. The density of cells creates overlapping service areas intended to reduce interference from (and within) buildings, trees, and other signal disruptions. The exponential increase in bandwidth inherent in the 5G network may remove the need for data caps, encouraging its use by devices traditionally connected by cable-based Wi-Fi (such as laptops and tablets).

When there is no functional difference between a cable connection and a wireless one, individual cable service to every building would no longer be necessary. Private networks will still exist for personal or enterprise-based applications, but that network could be fully wireless from where it enters the building to its end users. The building itself could host its own cells, effectively becoming a cell tower unto itself. The miles of data cabling currently snaking throughout our buildings would no longer need to be installed, allowing that cost to be redistributed into other, more visible aspects of its architecture (or to buy that smart toaster).

More crucially, 5G could support new technologies that increase efficiency and access to healthcare services. There are always a variety of new concepts and technologies presented at TEDMed (as we observed in 2018). It is up to architects, planners, and technologists to design systems which take advantage of the emergent complimentary effects between these new technologies. In a situation where someone may be in need of medical help and is alone, unconscious, or otherwise unable to call for assistance, a wearable device (a smartwatch with biometric feedback for example) could identify the cause of emergency and alert the closest service to send out an ambulance. Due to the higher density of wireless cells, the location could be pinpointed without the patient needing to provide any input. The IoT-augmented ambulance could forward the data provided by the personal device to the first responders so they have an idea of what they can expect before they reach the source of the call. They can immediately assess the accuracy of the data and more quickly identify other compounding issues. While this is occurring, the ambulance could automatically alert the hospital which systems and equipment need to be prepped, in which room, just as it’s needed, based on the specific emergency it’s responding to. Any improvement of operational efficiency saves time and space, and this interconnection of systems could provide a substantial improvement when seconds count.

Autonomous Vehicles: The End of Parking

Bridge? Building? Both? Automated vehicles may start to blur the lines between architecture and infrastructure. Illustration by the author.

Given their ubiquity and utility, it might be hard to believe that cars have only been part of our cities since the last century. Personal vehicles have allowed us to expand the reach of our day-to-day lives. They allow us more choice over where we live, work, and vacation. They enable us to take advantage of prospects that were previously out of reach. They are drivable pieces of art and technology. But the relationship between cars and our cities hasn’t always been an easy one. For all the opportunity and convenience our cars offer, they also have a more destructive legacy: the omnipresent parking lot.

Parking takes up a lot of space and capital in any construction project, even the most efficient parking layouts still require almost 300 sf per car (or about the size of an entire micro-apartment). The space we allocate for parking varies for political and economic reasons but many municipalities around the US have parking minimums to enforce, and developers base project feasibility around, plentiful and convenient parking. This leads to suburban retail centers that reserve more site for parking than for the building itself, area which is 100% overhead expenditure (paved surfaces still require maintenance and taxes must still be paid, after all) and we spend millions on parking structures that cover entire city blocks. And these costs are not taking into account the ecological cost of the materials used, the runoff from poorly maintained engines, or the burden on municipal infrastructure needed to support the impermeable surfaces.

While the car has changed the face of all American cities, the impact is felt most heavily in those that adopted policies that prioritize moving a car through the city above the people living within the city. An archetypical example is found in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city with many pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods surrounded by heavily car-centric development. Freeways led to unprecedented investment in the surrounding communities at the expense of the city’s core (since the 1960s, the population of the city has declined by almost a quarter while the greater metro area has expanded by over 50%).

An aggregated map of Milwaukee’s walkability. The historic core of the city is surrounded by highly car-centric suburbs. North is left. Some municipalities did not provide a graphical summary of their scores so were left out of the aggregate. Data from Walkscore.

Exurban development led to a greater demand of, and direct access to, parking in areas never designed with the car in mind. The city’s freeway system is now over 60 years old, but it started a trend which the city is still reckoning with. Neighborhoods divided by highways are still economically divided as well. Parcels which once housed a variety of historicarchitecturalstyles are still empty lots which, lacking any other plan, default to asphalt. The city’s downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods are home to about 11.4 million square feet of parking, a third of which goes unused at any given time (and more outside of office or event hours). This leads to a central business district that can feel less vibrant than those of other similarly sized cities. The empty spaces disrupt the continuity of our streetscapes and reduce the city’s tax base while the demand for more commercial and residential units continue to grow. Without infill development, the cost of the current stock grows as well.

A 2013 study by the author examined land use patterns in Downtown Milwaukee and how much space could be reallocated to new uses if less parking is required. Reducing demand through autonomous transit could further open up over 260 acres of downtown lots currently devoted to parking.

A great amount of progress has been made since the completion of the “bridge to nowhere” (made famous in The Blues Brothers, now the future site of the Lakefront Gateway) and removal of the Park East freeway (now home to the Buck’s multifaceted entertainment district). Transit options have begun to diversify with the success of the nascent streetcar system. Downtown has seen more development than it has in decades, but still these empty lots persist. Through of a variety of planning, policy, and economic reasons it has been easier to raze an existing building than redevelop already-empty lots; most new developments in the area have been replacements or rehabilitations. As long as a parking lot is marginally profitable, there is little motivation to improve it. Where an empty lot does happen to get redeveloped, these buildings still tend to provide as much structured (read: expensive) parking as they replace. Our built environment is a reflection of our society’s priorities, and this is a society that loves its cars.

But the areas which have been most impacted can lead to the most impactful change. How could our communities improve if parking lots were obsolete? How much more housing could we build? How many more parks could we provide? By supporting the implementation of self-driving cars, 5G could lead to the irrelevance of these asphalt fields.

A car is meant to move, its purpose is transportation. Taking a cue from the first law of taxicabs (probably): a car in motion should tend to stay in motion [because it is making money]. The most efficient vehicle is one that is always transporting someone somewhere, and the only way to reach peak efficiency is to allow the car to drive itself. In order to maximize productivity, and thereby profit, ridesharing companies are heavily investing in self-driving car technologies. These companies’ interests are strictly economic in nature but an autonomous transit system has an effect on urban planning as well: if there are only as many passenger vehicles in a given area as active passengers, then none of the vehicles require storage. Space not used for parking can be reallocated for something, anything, else. Widespread adoption of self-driving cars can drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the need for parking lots, spaces, and structures.

A design proposal illustrating how architecture and infrastructure could interact with autonomous vehicle technology, work by the author.

Smart building systems could add to this efficiency: buildings built directly adjacent to and around a highway could become nexus points for the neighborhood, ad-hoc transit centers that provide just-in-time ride hailing so the cars would never even need to come down to the street level. Parking can all become parks, plazas, greenspace. Parking structures can be replaced by new offices, apartments, restaurants, (or repurposed for bikes and parkour training). Curbside spaces can be reallocated as a grassy boulevard or pocket park (there are already hundreds of creative examples of what we can do with 18’x9’ spaces, as evidenced every PARKing Day).

In order for such a system to work safely, self-driving vehicles need to let each other know where they are and where they are moving at all times, which requires providing a decentralized network to share data between thousands of moving cars that can adjust on the fly. With the advent of 5G, wireless internet is fast and reliable enough to support this network. Our reliance on automobiles has punched holes into our urban fabric; wireless internet can be the catalyst which repairs them.

Augmented Architecture

Architectural tours are about to get interactive.

By liberating mobile devices from requiring internal storage, cloud-based computing has increased computers’ functionality while reducing their size and weight to the point where we can fit them in our pockets. We now have devices that can play any song ever written, any movie ever produced, exhaustive information about any topic we want to research at our disposal. The only caveat is that a reliable connection to the internet is no longer optional. While this has increased demand (and strain) on our current wireless networks, this demand will be a drop in the bucket for a 5G network. This will further drive increased functionality, and thereby adoption, of wearable personal devices.

Many of these devices will support the next evolution of augmented reality (AR) applications. AR overlays on cameras have been around for a while (the runaway success of Pokémon Go used a rudimentary version of this to connect players to their surroundings), but the true potential of AR comes from the ability to have live, interactive information at request. We have the entire database of the internet available on our screens, but the speed of our connections has been limiting what we can do with it. Faster flow of information can allow visualization of this data to occur in real time, merging the entire database of the internet with the living data that is all around us.

Self-contained AR headsets with this capability (Microsoft Hololens, for example) are already being used to supplement activities found in the healthcare and construction industries, but wider adoption has been hampered by headgear size and expense. However, this isn’t hindering tech companies from taking the next step of advancing the technology from a niche use to being adopted by the general public. While Google Glass failed in its first public attempt to provide a non-intrusive AR display useful for day-to-day tasks, nearly all tech companies are still interested in offering fully self-contained AR the size of a pair of spectacles. With the trend of ever smaller, lighter devices new working prototypes are not far off. Once a wireless network is fast enough to support the hardware, real-time informational and graphical overlays will begin to blur the line between the digital and physical worlds.

40-foot digital display boards customized for each different user? It’s possible with AR. Image by Kahler Slater.

As a design firm, Kahler Slater knows this provides an exciting opportunity to integrate digital computer graphics into the building design. A lobby can interact with users when they first enter the building, giving them a welcoming experience or simply helping them find their way in a new environment. Signage and wayfinding can be augmented by users’ mobile devices when they enter a building, providing information directly to each individual based on what they need at the time. The directional overlays used in virtual tours to identify points of interest could be placed within real-life locations. Information about the building could be provided by the building itself; a user could request the cost of an available apartment or check out a restaurant’s menu just from being in line-of-site of the building in question. Further interactivity could be layered into a building with a façade designed to host interactive projection-mapped computer graphics, seen only through an AR interface. Tourists would be able to request publicly-available information about the building itself such as the owner, the date of completion, the architect responsible, style of design, and historical importance (much to the chagrin of architectural-trivia-aficionados). The convergence of graphic design, computer programming, and architecture will change the way people interact with buildings from a static experience to an active one.

In Conclusion

With increased utility and reliability, always-connected IoT infrastructure will factor into more (and more critical) systems, including transportation and building automation. As architects, designers, planners, and strategic advisors, Kahler Slater understands the importance of preparing for a more interconnected future. These new technologies will influence not just how we interact with buildings. By extension, they will also impact how we interact with our communities and each other. In a future where your car, your glasses, and even your toaster has an IP address, providing for privacy and security in our communications will be of paramount importance. Knowing how and where these systems relate will be required for any owner of an IoT-enhanced building. These technologies have the potential to enrich our lives; as design professionals it is up to us to apply them thoughtfully and responsibly to achieve these powerful results.