Any commercial building technology that launched just before March 2020 is bound to have had a strange start to life. These products and services would have been designed for normal activity in buildings but, as the COVID-19 virus became a pandemic, would have soon found commercial buildings empty as the world was turned upside down by the crisis. Fully authorized for commercial use in January 2020, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is one of those technologies that held great promise but found itself stranded by the life-saving lockdown policies that followed the spread of the virus. The post-pandemic commercial building will now be a very different space but experts still hold great hope for CBRS in that new future.
CBRS is a wireless frequency band that building owners can utilize to set up faster, more secure, private high-speed wireless connections. It’s effectively a shortcut to upgrade an entire office building or workspace to 5G speeds. The commercial deployment of the technology, which began after getting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval in January 2020, never really made the headlines it should have in the commercial real estate (CRE) sector because two months later the pandemic struck, and most commercial buildings have been empty since.
“People thought offices would be the most popular environment for this, but there haven’t been people in offices. The general consensus is that once COVID ends and people get back in buildings, the growth engine will be offices,” said Jim Jacobellis, VP of Geoverse, a firm that sets up CBRS networks. “This is different from Wi-Fi; you can do so much more. It’s also much more secure. Building-critical information should go over CBRS, not Wi-Fi. This will be the foundation that allows tenants and visitor smartphones to work on the same network.”
The wireless frequency band was once only available to military and satellite communications under the name Spectrum Access System (SAS) but commercial opportunities quickly began to emerge. Larger organizations were able to buy a Priority Access License (PAL) for setting up wireless networks across large campuses or manufacturing facilities, and more recently building owners have been able to set up their own private networks on unlicensed parts of the spectrum. The FCC approval in January 2020 promised to trigger the rapid proliferation of CBRS in CRE.
“This is the first time in the history of the FCC that they’ve done something for the real estate industry, and it’s pretty amazing. They did it with a purpose, to accelerate in-building 5G and private networks,” said John J. Gilbert III, COO and EVP at Rudin Management. “The beauty is that the spectrum can be segmented. It goes on and on with potential use cases. You provide better service to your tenants and you enhance the security of wireless networks. I think it’s a game-changer.”
Rudin Management, a private, family-run commercial and residential landlord and developer in New York City, has become an early adopter of the technology. In March 2021, its 345 Park Avenue building in New York became one of the first CBRS-enabled multi-tenant commercial office buildings in the US. The network has doubled the building’s previous wireless capacity, providing more flexibility for configuring wireless solutions for improved security and visitor features. Tenants and occupants can utilize the higher capacity private network, while building owners can accommodate a lot more devices.
“This exciting new technology goes beyond what was possible even a few years ago,” Michael Rudin, Senior Vice President at Rudin Management said in a statement. “The spectrum that this technology is based in is the wave of the future, and tenants and owners alike who rely on fast, reliable connectivity will need this in order to stay competitive.”
As with most data communications upgrades, it is not just the increased speeds and capacities but the range of new applications that the improvements allow, and CBRS is no different. ‘Big Four’ accounting firm KPMG chose CBRS for its new patent-pending blockchain capability called KPMG Climate Accounting Infrastructure (CAI), for example. CAI helps organizations more accurately measure greenhouse gas emissions, track offsets and report on non-financial factors to investors, lenders, and tenants following industry standards and frameworks. The CBRS network leverages increased bandwidth and security to capture building climate accounting data continuously for a more accurate view of the organization’s carbon footprint.
“Real estate owners and operators are under immense pressure to assess the impact of different climate risks on their assets, improve tenant experience and report progress toward emissions reduction goals to stakeholders,” said Arun Ghosh, KPMG One Americas Blockchain & Cryptoassets leader. “A CBRS network can provide the fault tolerant, local 5G backbone to enable KPMG Climate Accounting Infrastructure to capture highly granular data, powered by Nantum, to derive the trusted insights needed to measure progress toward net-zero by accounting for decarbonization and the transition to renewable energy.”
Despite the promise of increased wireless capacity and a range of new applications, CBRS does have downsides, namely its cost. In fact, the annual operating costs of CBRS are nearly twice that of a traditional Wi-Fi system, making its adoption potential vulnerable to budget restrictions, as we may see across the CRE sector in the wake of the pandemic. Furthermore, early adopters report that not all mobile devices work well with CBRS, suggesting there are still a few kinks to work out with the technology. However, many commentators in the industry are still very positive about the demand and potential for CBRS in the post-COVID era.
“We think that there’s going to be a lot of need for alternative networks. Those alternative networks that are owned and managed by the enterprise have a bunch of benefits that are tied to tenant amenities, security, ingress, egress, and things like COVID-19 management,” said Jon Morris, CEO and co-founder of Ballast Networks. “For me, it’s about preparing for the future as you’re going about changing your buildings. The future of work with shared spaces and things like sanitization can’t happen without the right kind of connectivity.”