Connectivity in a World of Big Data: The elements of design that affect WIFI coverage | C-Link

Connectivity in a World of Big Data: The elements of design that affect WIFI coverage

by Christopher Dawson

The world has changed quicker than any of us imagined. Anyone who has worked from home will understand the reliance on the Internet and more importantly data connectivity. Parents presenting to the board or taking part in one of the numerous Zoom, Teams or Skype calls crackling through the atmosphere will be competing for bandwidth with their children. The loss of image or audio as an offspring undertakes another online mission or streams the latest film are all too common.

The importance and requirement of connectivity in today’s world has been recognised through a dedicated Building Regulations Approved Document – Part R. Furthermore, internet access is widely considered a basic human right. If you are not convinced, just think how disadvantaged an individual or company would be if this access was taken away.

How much speed do occupants need?

With all the data created, viewed and transferred, how good does your connectivity really need to be? In short this depends on who and what you are doing.

The measurement of a connection is Mbps and it is essentially how much data you can transfer in any given second. If you are wondering how good you current connection is, there are many online applications for a speed test.

For a domestic property or apartment of only one or two people, a standard connection from an everyday provider should suffice; this would be in the region of 20-30Mbps. This would cover the typical demands of working from home and general home use, including streaming from the multitude of online content providers. However if you are one of the many gamers out there, your internet speed could, virtually if not literally, be a case of life and death. Lag is the curse of the online game and can be avoided by purchasing an upgraded speed. Multi-dwelling properties such as high-rise city apartments need to provide the infrastructure to allow an occupier to increase this bandwidth. The initial building connection should have a level of resilience or spare capacity and, unless every dwelling is a MMORPG fanatic, individual additional bandwidth is rarely a problem. (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game in case you were wondering!)

Typical business speeds depend predominately on the number of users and, as can be imagined, the larger the numbers the faster the connection required. This would be correct for general business use such as email and even online video calls. Upgrades need to be considered if streaming is a possibility and the quality of images are important, or if large data files are transferred and cannot be sent out of hours. An area where data connection speeds are paramount is in finance and trading. The speed at which an instruction is made to purchase a fast-moving stock could have ramifications running into millions of pounds. I would urge anyone who is reading this blog not to base decisions that could cost you millions without a full review of your requirements.

Infrastructure

Connectivity within a facility will fall into one of two categories – fixed data outlet via an RJ45 port or, as is increasingly more common, Wi-Fi. It’s still a requirement of many commercial contracts that each desk has two data points, one for your laptop that will connect to the Wi-Fi the minute you walk in the door and one for the phone that is superseded by the mobile that never leaves your side.

Schools are another example of this anomalous requirement, at least in my opinion – data points in the Department for Educations Functional Output Specification (FOS) are stated at 1.2 data points per pupil for a standard secondary school. Now, I am not saying that there is no place for fixed data points. Fixed equipment such as printers and desk top computers will often require it. But it is more the carte blanche approach I object to.

A Wi-Fi router in each classroom could serve 30 pupils easily and it will not be long before printers and desktop computers connecting to a Wi-Fi system are the norm, these products are already widely available. And why wouldn’t they be? The beauty of Wi-Fi is ultimate flexibility, a blank canvas. If you decide to remodel the office and move the printing room, no longer will you be required to strip out all the cables, replace them if they are removed too boisterously, and re-route them to a new location.

But, how do you ensure your Wi-Fi is reliable and avoid those dreading loading wheels and frozen screens that many of us will have had to endure over the lockdown period working from home?

First and foremost, Wi-Fi is a virtual result of the physical infrastructure. Cabling out from the active equipment and servers needs to be representative of the system required. The selection needs to be right. Data cables come in a series of categories (Cat) from 3 to 7, with a few interstitial values of Cat 5e, 6a and 7a. The general rule of thumb is the higher the number, the faster the connection and ability to move larger volumes of data. Consequently the price rises. Which brings us back to the theme of how much data are you going to be moving and what do you really need. Cat 6 is generally standard in this day and age, although it is crucial to consider the facility and other equipment operating in the vicinity. Cable Cat 6a and above is shielded and if large manufacturing or medical imaging machines are present, the risk of electrical interference that can interfere with data and render it useless is very real.

Wi-Fi routers replicate the internet connection via radio waves that emanate in all directions from the point of origin. But like any waves, they can be affected by the physical structure around them. Therein lies the crux – the quality of any Wi-Fi installation will not necessarily be known until the system is completed, and by then it is too late. In the design stage, it’s important to consider the materials in the work place, and in particular the walls.

This is a similar phenomenon to a Faraday Cage. Created by Michael Faraday in 1836, this is a device that forms a shield, preventing any waves passing in or out. Metal cages will create a Faraday cage; this is to be paid particular attention to in external environments such as schools. If external lessons in PE or biology are supplemented with learning aids and tablets, then external WI-FI may be required. Grass pitches and multi-use games areas (MUGAs) will have a wire mesh fence surrounding to prevent balls flying here there and everywhere and invariably will completely block all Wi-Fi signal. Often the solution is one of brute force – either an external beacon high on a mast or building with line of sight above the fence, or a cabled supply to within the boundary. Other external features that obscure signal are topography. A pitch or work area shielded by trees, earth mounds or are elevated can fall foul of coverage issues.

Internally, the situation arises if there is a heavy construction material. It’s no surprise that concrete is a particular culprit, and the thicker the wall the worse it is. A 200mm thick reinforced concrete wall can reduce signal by up to 90%. Brickwork’s effect is moderate and plasterboard is fairly tolerable. Plant, especially electrical switchgear, has a nasty habit of disruption.

There is a solution. Many companies will undertake a review of the designs for a developer, advising based on the proposed construction material where Wi-Fi points should be positioned and where coverage will be at risk. Even more certainty can be ascertained during construction by onsite radio frequency (RF) surveys. Prior to data installation, but after structural construction is completed, an RF survey will provide an onsite ‘as built’ connectivity that can inform the data infrastructure required and, although it may be a change to design, it is not a retrofitted solution.

The most common depiction for Wi-Fi coverage is a heat map. And to be fair it does exactly what it says on the tin – radiating from the router it demonstrates the strength of the signal deteriorating as it moves away from the source. This can be the tool of the contractor or the developer, as long as both parties agree. Green and red mushroom clouds all over the general arrangement drawings are extremely good way of demonstrating exactly what the system will provide.

With all this connectivity it is important to consider reliability. A building flooded with complete coverage, the utopia achieved with no dead spots, and multitudes of people waving phones and laptops around in the air trying to get the last email away is a thing of the past, but how do you maintain minimum speeds? The simplest method is actually via software. Virtual Local Area Networks (VLans) can enable a network operator to assign bandwidth to user groups or differing specialities dependent on the requirements. For a developer this is freeing; provide one secured network for landlord requirements and a completely separate one for tenants, whilst not having to change the infrastructure. For the, tenant it allows the set up to provide coverage across all aspects of the establishment and the tech gurus can portion up the goods as deemed sufficient.

Certification Schemes

The advent of data systems has inevitably led to certification schemes. And why not? All this thought and design has gone into the digital infrastructure of a premises to provide global connectivity. Why shouldn’t it be shouted about? In the market of real estate I would imagine any competitive edge is welcome.

Like BREEAM™ and WELL Standard™ there are now a variety of digital infrastructure certification schemes. WiredScore™ is currently the most prominent in the UK, with four levels of certification ranging from ‘Certified’ through to ‘Platinum’ by way of ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’.

The assessment takes account of the Internet Service Provider connections into the building or facility and the physical infrastructure within. Spare capacity on cable trays with dedicated and diverse routes will all gain available credits along with backup power for the all-important resilience. It even goes as far as ensuring protection for telecommunication rooms from flooding, either from without or within. The cynic may consider this as a gimmick to make another US based company a quick buck, but in a market place where there is no recognised standard, it sets a benchmark for all to follow.

The future?

Data installations within the built environment are now considered as important as electrical distribution, ventilation, heating or any other of the building services.

But like all of these services any data infrastructure needs to be fit for purpose – understanding the requirements is key. What may be required for expansion and resilience is important but there are ways and means to avoid the pitfalls and risks.

Looking to the future I wonder if the key question now is not only “Does my digital design keep up with today?” but “How does it stay relevant in tomorrow’s world?”

Image credit: Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

About Christopher Dawson

Christopher is an MEP Principal Design Manager for Wates Construction and has over twenty years experience in the industry working for both engineering consultants and main contractors.

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