Overcoming the challenges of WiFi deployments in intelligent buildings

Aug. 17, 2020
Planning, placing, and protecting access points is essential to establishing reliable connectivity in an intelligent building.

By Bree Murphy,

The buzz around intelligent buildings is everywhere. But what is an intelligent building, or smart building, or digital building, or whatever popular description is used to describe this type of structure? Furthermore, what is the relationship between the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the intelligent building?

And what is the role of wireless networks in an intelligent building? This article will address these questions.

The new era

First, let’s look at the progression of intelligent buildings and the evolution of the new technologies and communication methods that have emerged since the first days of automated systems.

An intelligent building can be identified as a building, or space within a building, with an integrated communications infrastructure. This can be described as the convergence of networks and protocols that can be controlled by a building automation system (BAS). A BAS provides innovative operation of building systems and related equipment. Ultimately, the main objective of an intelligent building is to improve the efficiency and comfort of those within the building, while also providing a means of monitoring systems and reducing energy consumption and operational costs.

Automated buildings are frequently referred to as smart buildings, digital buildings, and intelligent buildings; the terms commonly are used interchangeably but the principal goals are the same.

The communication between and among these types of devices is often referred to as M2M, as there is no human interfacing client device in the communication link. If these IP-enabled devices then connect to the internet, they become part of the IoT.

The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI), a technology forecast that has proven to be relevant in the industry, predicts the progression of M2M and IoT. According to the VNI, global M2M connections will grow 2.4-fold, from 6.1 billion in 2017 to 14.6 billion by 2022. There will be 1.8 M2M connections for each member of the global population by 2022. Legacy protocols such as BACnet and Modbus will continue to adopt the physical connection of standards-based 4-pair Ethernet, and emerging single-pair Base-T1.

The extraordinary evolution of Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled devices, equipment and machines has transformed traditional methods of communication. As the IoT continues to penetrate the market, an abundance of smart devices is saturating networks. Among the evolution of smart devices, new forms of technology have become available for transporting countless forms of information. Communication protocols, applications, and IP-enabled devices are using technologies such as Bluetooth, Zigbee, WiFi, small cell, in-building distributed antenna systems, wired networks, AV sensors, and emerging Light Fidelity (LiFi) optical networking. It is important that the design and provisioning of the wired and wireless infrastructure is designed to accommodate present and future systems, applications, and connected devices.

Wireless technologies in intelligent buildings

Users implement several types of wireless networks within enterprise and residential intelligent buildings. Many of these networks may support M2M communication, IoT, automated systems, and connected devices.

The general term “wireless” is used to describe many different communication protocols and networks. Some use satellite, and others use microwave. But in enterprise and intelligent spaces, most often discussed are BLE, Zigbee for sensors and controls, WiFi RF radio, cellular, and as mentioned previously, LiFi.

Each wireless technology is significant in today’s networks. All provide unique functionality, offering different signaling methods, geographical ranges, and frequency usages. With distinct value and functions, these networks are commonly used in combination with each other, and will continue to be used in a complementary manner.

For example, Bluetooth (802.15.1) and Zigbee (802.15.4) are technologies described within a personal area network (PAN). These technologies deliver short-range coverage, and low power radio communications. Many wireless access point (AP) manufacturers are implementing new BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) beacons into newer advanced WiFi APs. This feature offers the client additional remote management functions, and advanced location and wayfinding features. Thus, the wireless PAN is integrated into the WiFi access point. As wireless LANs continue to become the transmission media of the future, it is imperative to consider the requirement for dense WiFi infrastructures that will be able to handle the demand.

For countless enterprise networks and intelligent spaces, WiFi has become critical as more and more WiFi-enabled systems and devices emerge. New connections are joining the WiFi network, and these demands drive the demand for robust WiFi infrastructures.

This evolution is changing how the world engages with WiFi networks, and the necessary change for advanced WiFi technologies. WiFi will provide connectivity for many advanced use cases in connected homes, connected enterprises, IoT, smart cities, carrier services, and public venues. WiFi HaLow—low-power, long-range WiFi—will enable a variety of power-efficient use cases for connected car, digital healthcare, and industrial scenarios. Remember also that intelligent building M2M communication communicates over the WiFi infrastructure. Intelligent buildings, with multiple systems IP-enabled, confirm that WiFi will continue to be the connectivity method of the future.

Preparing the infrastructure

Given that the WiFi network has become an essential utility for not only human-interfacing mobile client devices, but also for operations-centric M2M communications for intelligent-building functionality, it is more important now than ever to carefully consider the physical installation and planning of the wireless LAN.

The designer, consultants, and end-user have to consider the following necessary facts while planning the infrastructure.

  • The APs will be physically swapped out every 3 to 5 years.
  • The AP’s throughput will increase by a factor of 10 every 5 years.
  • The AP’s power requirement, supplied by Power over Ethernet, will increase.
  • The AP density will increase, requiring additional cabling to new AP locations.
  • Network PHY and MAC standards are evolving.
  • The wireless LAN will provide additional services in the future, which include Voice over WiFi, location-based services, IoT/M2M, telemetry, and others.

To help establish suitable guidelines while planning for the wireless infrastructure, standards and other documents are available for reference. In terms of cabling infrastructure, the ANSI/TIA Telecommunications Systems Bulletin TSB-162-A Telecommunications Cabling Guidelines for Wireless Access Points proves to be relevant. TSB-162-A states to provide at least one Category 6A cable to each AP location. Horizontal cable should be terminated at the equipment outlet, then a patch cord to the AP. TSB-162-A further recommends a telecommunications enclosure in the ceiling panel for locked security. An in-the-grid ceiling mount is accepted, with the antenna unobstructed by ceiling tiles.

Additional cabling design recommendations come from ANSI/BICSI 008-2018 Wireless LAN System Design and Implementation Best Practices. ANSI/BICSI 008-2018 states that new installations of horizontal cabling shall follow all applicable standards and recommendations. Additionally, balanced twisted-pair cabling, at a minimum, should meet Category 6A/Class EA performance. If optical fiber is used, use OM3 as a minimum.

The standard suggests that a minimum of one dedicated horizontal cabling link should be provided for each wireless AP or antenna. And for future growth and new technologies, the standard states that two horizontal cables for each AP is recommended.

ANSI/BICSI 008-2018 explains the reuse of the existing cabling plant. While the easiest solution for upgrading wireless LANs is to just replace the AP and the equipment in the equipment room—without upgrading the existing cable plant—the ANSI/BICSI 008-2018 standard states that older cabling infrastructures can impair future expansions or reconfigurations. Also, not upgrading older cabling may hinder network performance, and it may lower network availability and reliability. So the decision to reuse the existing cable plant when upgrading wireless LAN systems depends on a number of factors, specifically including the following.

  • Wireless LAN manufacturer requirements
  • Application signal (2.5GBase-T, 5GBase-T, 10GBase-T)
  • Existing cabling distances
  • New or increased power to be transmitted
  • Existing or new code or authority-having-jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements
  • Expected longevity of the upgraded wireless LAN
  • Age of existing cable plant

The standard also discusses the use of a hybrid or composite optical-fiber cable with copper conductors. It states that this media type can be employed for extended distances while offering power at the device end through the copper conductors. However, sheath sharing may be restricted based on safety considerations, local codes, manufacturer requirements, or other regulations enforced by the AHJ.

Placing and installing access points

This final part of the article will provide recommendations for installing and placing APs for optimal performance.

In terms of physical deployment of WiFi APs, the requirement for dense wireless AP deployments continues to rise, and countless installation methods are needed. Designers, architects, and building owners will face challenges with the physical installation of the wireless APs. Here are important considerations to make when planning for the installation of APs to provide a future-ready, robust network.

  • Aesthetics in architecturally sensitive areas
  • Consistency
  • Simplifying installation and reducing installation time
  • Physical infrastructure security
  • Mounting options that provide quick access for serviceability
  • A quick, easy migration path to future AP upgrades
  • Exploiting the APs’ full performance capabilities
  • Outdoor protection of APs and connectivity components
  • Simplifying codes, compliances and processes

Another consideration is the increased number of APs that will be deployed within and around a single facility, which is specifically noticeable in high-density areas. Clearly, it is imperative to think about the method of AP deployment. Designers, architects, and owners will have to make considerations that did not even exist for prior design initiatives that took place years ago.

Many facility owners and architects prefer to either conceal or blend the WiFi APs and cabling components into the environment, especially in an architecturally sensitive area. As AP technology advances, it is apparent that the form factor of the AP is changing. For example, IEEE 802.11ax APs may have up to 8 transmit/receive channels, doubling the number of antennas of prior-generation APs. In many cases this results in larger APs than previous-generation technology. The challenge is to provide the desired appearance without compromising performance.

TIA TSB-162-A states to consider the maintenance and security of APs, and recommends the use of an enclosure where physical security is a concern. These enclosures could be made of a metal housing, hinged doors, have a low profile for aesthetics, and should provide knockouts for cable egress. They should have brackets suitable for wall or ceiling mounting. Mounting the APs with integrated antennas in the preferred horizontal orientation will take full advantage of the AP’s performance, and horizontal orientation is always recommended by the AP manufacturer.

And BICSI 008-2018 states that the AP’s physical infrastructure design should consider consistency, compatibility, and ease of operational support throughout the facility, while lowering the overall cost. To lower overall costs, the design should consider both initial installation cost as well as operational support and costs. Operational costs most often refer to maintenance, serviceability, and upgrades. That is why providing a method for quick and easy serviceability drives down overall cost.

Finally, when the WiFi infrastructure extends from indoors to outdoors, physically securing and protecting the AP and connectivity are paramount considerations. Protect the AP and connectivity from the environment in which they are installed, including weather, impact, and vandalism.

Whether you use the term intelligent building, smart building, digital building, or another, wireless LAN technology is an essential part of the facility’s communications infrastructure. With proper consideration and planning, you can put in place a wireless LAN that is ready for today’s needs and tomorrow’s new challenges.

Bree Murphy, RCDD is global training and applications engineer with Oberon Inc. a division of Chatsworth Products. She has more than 25 years’ experience in the information technology industry managing, training, and selling in the wireless, wired, data center and enterprise building spaces. This article is based on a presentation Murphy delivered during our online seminar “Intelligent Buildings” on March 5.

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