Commercial Real Estate (CRE) Needs a Backbone

CRE Needs a Backbone

CRE Needs a Backbone

by Art King, Corning Incorporated

In discussions of smart buildings, the benefits of deploying a network infrastructure to both increase the intelligence of the building with smart devices and also to deliver a persistent wired/wireless network are very well explained. However, there is a dimension that is a blind spot to anyone who has not actually leased or operated commercial real estate (CRE). This dimension is the need for a backbone and communications infrastructure that is independent of anything that a tenant will build for their own business operations. This discussion can also apply to enterprise-owned structures and not just CRE.

Fourth utility introduction

The concept of networking in CRE evolving from a competitive selling feature of a major property to a necessary fourth utility alongside electricity, gas, and water has been developing over this decade. The need inside buildings to enable more instrumentation and control points requires wired and wireless networks to connect them back to the services that orchestrate their overall operations. The fourth utility has to span from basement to roof, and carpeted floors to parking garage.

As you would expect, cellular and, possibly, Wi-Fi wireless services are part of the fourth utility that the enterprise employees, various smart building devices, and transient Internet of Things (IoT) devices will utilize inside the building.

Where is the blind spot?

The discussions generally fail to encompass the required CRE owner-installed and -controlled network that is parallel to the enterprise tenant’s own network(s) that they install in the space. There are a number of justifications for an independent implementation.

1. Smart building services cannot rely on the tenant for network services.

  • Tenants may be able to provide network services for many attached devices throughout the building. However, a security policy change on the part of the tenant may abruptly end this ability. With the threats that many enterprises face today from many different vectors, information security professionals are reducing their risk of attack by simple exclusion from network services of everything that is not tightly controlled operationally by the enterprise itself.
  • The tenant network may not have the necessary resources to service the need without the CRE owner funding it. For example, the network may not reach into parts of the building where smart devices have to operate, it may be out of capacity either in physical ports or wireless service, or it might not have the right wireless services that the smart devices require. For all three scenarios, the CRE owner has to fund resolving the issues.
  • The tenant’s IT team will make changes without regard to the impact on the devices they don’t control. This can result in temporary loss of services until the issues are resolved. In an extreme circumstance, the change can result in permanent loss of service until the CRE owner replaces the network. This can be especially stressful if it requires a budget exception to fund the unexpected project.

2. Changing tenants is disruptive.

  • When the tenant moves out and the smart devices are mingled with their network, the network just disappears when the equipment and telecom links to outside world are shut down.
  • Every network horizontal cable installed from the floor’s telecom closet(s) to office, cubicles, and wireless are also controlled and liable to disruption because of mingling with the tenant’s network operations.

3. Commercial remodeling

  • Enterprise facilities operations remodel interiors with a “gut and remodel” strategy. The pain for a smart building is in the “gut” stage where construction workers that are responsible take the building down to its essential shell by ripping out everything from carpet to drop ceiling. Usually, the only services that are immune from being torn out are HVAC ducting and fire suppression.
  • If a tenant has occupied the building for a longer period of time and smart building features have been gradually layered onto their network, imagine what happens when they move out or simply remodel a few floors. Not only will the smart building features be lost, but each disrupted service needs to be identified, redesigned, and reconstructed.

Solutions to network disruption risk

There are two possible solutions to the network disruption risk:

  1. Do nothing and hope that everything works out. That can be a strategy.
  2. Implement a CRE controlled backbone through the smart building for common services that are external to the tenant’s enterprise operations.

Long term, the trend is for building CRE owners to drive towards establishment of their own building-wide network on which to layer a wide variety of facility operations and tenant facing services. This CRE backbone would be the transport for common services throughout the building and eliminates the use of any network services from the tenants or the parallel construction of isolated networks for single services.

What does a CRE backbone look like?

The foundation is the establishment of a common vertical optical transport network that extends from the basement to the roof and appears in every telecom closet. The logical heart of the transport network would be in the meet-me room, where all the telecom providers from the outside world appear. Because many operations control systems and smart building apps are now housed in secured cloud services, there may not be a need to allocate space for servers on-site. From a service protection perspective, the physical cabling and active electronics for the vertical transport need to be segregated and identified separate from tenant networks.

After the vertical foundation, every floor requires a horizontal infrastructure that extends from each floor’s telecom closet to wiring zones distributed throughout the ceiling. Why in the ceiling? Simply put, most everything that is part of building automation/operations resides in the plenum (space between drop ceiling and floor above) or originates in the plenum to appear on the drop ceiling or is fed down and out of a wall. Wiring zones are sensible because they limit the amount of cables pulled from the telecom closet to many of the distributed services across an overall floor. Instead, smart building services can cable or wirelessly connect to nearest wiring zone point. The need here to segregate, identify, and protect this horizontal infrastructure is very critical to ensure that when construction contractors are gutting a floor in preparation for a remodel or a new tenant that they don’t rip it out. Identification strategies can parallel what fire protection system contractors do.  

Finally, enablement of select network services that smart buildings applications and select tenant-facing services will use to ride on top of the physical network. Most services use IP protocol on top of a wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or cellular connection. This design assumption implies that every zone across the floor can offer these services. Also, arrival of services can be staggered over time, as long as the physical transport exists, to manage the budget costs. For example, step one might be an optically attached SD-LAN transport with Wi-Fi AP to follow and, finally, with a digitally attached cellular small cell or DAS last.

Since sizing the CRE backbone is an important consideration, we would like to offer a few thoughts.

  • Invest in plenty of excess capacity in the optical and composite optical paths. 5G and next-gen Wi-Fi are coming, and both will use plenty of fiber and power.
  • Since installation labor is always a big cost component, investing with a time horizon of at least 10 years of projected growth on CRE backbone capacity will limit expensive upgrades.


Smart buildings are gradually moving to mainstream as engineering and architecture firms design new buildings and retrofit older shells with modern features. The foundation infrastructure for these smart buildings will be a CRE backbone that appears throughout the structure and offers a family of network services for CRE owners and tenants that truly fulfills on the promise of enabling a better experience for all.