What Makes a Smart Building Smart?

“Futuristic” tech is already here, and more is on the way

By Deanna MacCormac
Published: August 4, 2022

Wearable devices, smart home technology, and autonomous vehicles that made their debut in our favorite science fiction films are no longer only found in a galaxy far, far away. These days, we rely on low-latency video to stream our favorite shows, connected machinery to improve manufacturing efficiencies, and robust wireless networks to make video conferencing a reality. As we look ahead, we see use cases for a more tactile Internet consisting of holographic training simulators, remote surgery, and advanced agricultural IoT.

To bring the next big idea to life, we continue to need more data and faster speeds, and our legacy Category cable network upgrades won’t get us there. Instead, businesses are turning to optical fiber to deliver the future-ready connectivity they need to stay relevant and competitive.

Technologies are rapidly changing, but our infrastructure doesn’t have to

We’ve seen our networks transition from copper to optical in the data center world to enable faster switching speeds and in fiber-to-the-home initiatives to support residential tech demands. In our homes, for example, we’ve migrated from copper landlines to optical fiber with rich mesh-based wireless and mobile connectivity. To support new technologies such as smart tech, tablets, wearables, and more connected devices, fiber has continued to move deeper into our networks from the pole, to the neighborhood, and now to the home.

The moral of the story: As our technology usage surpasses the capabilities of our copper-based networks, we pull fiber closer to the edge of the network, reducing the number of network “hops” and alleviating our bandwidth & latency bottlenecks. Once we have a fiber-to-the-edge network architecture in place, we can quickly add new technologies and enable the next big idea without having to routinely reinvest to upgrade our network infrastructure.

Enterprise networks are evolving

Similarly, enterprise buildings and campuses are experiencing a fiber optic evolution of their own. At first, we connected our buildings with copper. However, deploying fiber in the campus and building backbones quickly became the status quo to support our connectivity demands. In the horizontal of our buildings, we have historically connected our end devices with Category cable networks which deliver Power over Ethernet (PoE) across 100 meters (approximately 300 feet). As we introduced more technologies, we would traditionally enable another port or add another switch and pull additional Category cable for each new device. This limited network architecture sufficed when we were connecting a limited number of devices such as desk phones and desktop computers. But times have changed.

We are quickly outgrowing this legacy horizontal cabling approach as we bring even more connected devices into our spaces. We have developed an expectation for always-on connectivity and quickly feel the pain of slow networks that no longer meet our needs. In the past, when we have felt that pain of our network limitations, we have historically upgraded from one generation of Category cable to the next. However, it’s time to break this expensive, disruptive habit of ripping-and-replacing our network infrastructure because we can already see the next wave of technology demands on the horizon, and Category cable will not be able to take us there.

Wireless-first environments need future-ready connectivity

Our increasing demand for wireless connectivity is one of the main drivers that is challenging building owners to design their networks differently. Our Wi-Fi access points aggregate the connectivity from multiple wireless devices (smart phones, tablets, IoT sensors, controls, etc.), and these Wi-Fi access points essentially act as wireless switches. Just as we feed the switches in our telecommunication rooms with fiber to keep up with increasing switching speeds, we need to bring this future-ready connectivity to the aggregation points that sit at the edge of our networks. This evolution to a wireless-first environment calls for a different network architecture.

Knowing your limits

Throughout the technology boom, businesses have paid to upgrade their networks from CAT3 to CAT5 to CAT5e to CAT6 and to CAT6A. This latest generation of Category cable will likely be their last feasible upgrade as CAT6A, CAT7, and CAT7A will all deliver 10Gbps speeds at the standard distance of 100m. 10Gbps may seem like a lot – it will enable some virtual reality and building-to-building wireless connections – but we are already planning for 5G and Wi-Fi 7 to enable applications like holographic meetings, massive IoT automation, and remotely diagnosing patients with tactile Internet.

To enable these Wi-Fi 7 speeds, CAT8 can deliver 40Gbps but only across distances of up to 30 meters (approximately 100 feet.) For an enterprise building to continue their upgrade path with Category cable, they would need give up revenue-generating space to build more telecommunication rooms, add racks of expensive switching gear, provide power and cooling to maintain these spaces, and ensure the existing pathways are large enough to accommodate a CAT8 upgrade.

Alternatively, they could stick with CAT6A to reach their standard 100-meter runs, but that decision comes with several tradeoffs. Wi-Fi 6E will require two CAT6A cables to provide enough data and power to each access point, and Wi-Fi 7 will require four CAT6A cables to each access point. To upgrade to the next generation of Wi-Fi, enterprises will need pathways that are large enough to hold additional runs of cable and the budget and space to add additional switching ports in their telecommunication rooms.

The thought of 10Gbps speeds and beyond may feel futuristic now, but it wasn’t that long ago that having a 1Gbps connection seemed more than we would ever need. Having future-ready networks in place will make these innovations a reality that much sooner.

Move forward with fiber

If an enterprise has increased bandwidth & lower latency requirements on their radar, they have an opportunity to put an end to costly, disruptive, inefficient Category cable network upgrades and instead make a smarter network investment. Rather than planning to spend technology funds on routine short-term cabling upgrades, consider designing your network differently.

Choosing a fiber-to-the-edge network architecture today will seamlessly take enterprise buildings into the next technology era. To learn more about Fiber to the Edge network architecture, check out our related series: “4 Considerations for a Smarter Network”.  

Deanna MacCormac
joined Corning in 2017 and is part of the In-Building Networks team. She is passionate about helping enterprises solve for their ever-changing technology needs through a fiber-to-the-edge approach. In particular, Deanna supports senior living communities by understanding their unique technology goals and helping them implement flexible, cost-effective networks. In this role, she also helps launch new products and provides solution training for software-defined LAN and remote power.

Deanna has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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