A recent Siemens-Qualcomm collaboration announcement of a 5G private network smart building test at Siemens’ Chicagoland offices provides an opportunity to hear from industry analysts on the progress of smart building technology more broadly.

A general impression three analysts shared withFierce Electronics is that building automation with 5G is moving ahead, but slowly, with the US lagging behind some other regions. As expected, they said it is easier to design a system in a new structure than glom it atop an older HVAC system or another system, such as building security or occupancy.

Some of the analysts’ lightly edited responses can be found below, but first a few insights on the work:

The project background

Qualcomm didn’t detail the entire proof-of-concept at the Buffalo Grove, Illinois, offices but a spokesperson told FE it so far has been a test of a single 5G base station with two WNC routers connected to multiple HVAC end devices in a command-response set up. “The scope of the test was defined to allow quick validation; however, the solutions are built with scale in mind for supporting fully populated buildings and building complexes,” the spokesperson said.

Qualcomm didn’t say when the test started, but noted Qualcomm and Siemens been “exploring” building automation using 5G since 2020.   The companies gave no details on the outcome of the test, the efficiencies gained or potential cost savings, but perhaps those insights will come later in the way the companies market to customers.

“Smart buildings are at the core of buildings’ future,” the spokesperson added, with growth of more than 150% by 2026. “With more connected buildings and devices, high speed connection and low latency enabled by 5G makes a business-critical difference. 5G will play an essential role in the adoption and maintenance of building automation systems.”  Qualcomm said in a statement that the partnership “aims to further advance digitization in building automation by developing new, more intelligent smart devices in the future.”

In dollar terms, the global smart buildings market could reach $121 billion in 2026, up from $73 billion in 2021, according to Markets and Markets.  The pandemic and the more recent economic instability could weigh on those numbers considerably.  Some analysts believe the need for cleaner interior air and sustainability have been boosted by the pandemic, which would argue for an even more ambitious forecast despite a relatively modest start several years ago.

“Wireless-enabled building automation is growing, especially in China, but also in Europe. The US is a bit behind, despite CBRS. Telefonica recently named multiple commercial enterprise applications of 5G for building automation, and such examples are emerging more slowly than expected, but we are making progress.

“One of the areas where adoption of automation in the US is ramping up is airports. The reason is that airports have very pressing needs that automation can address and multiple use cases. This means that if they have a private network, they can get much value from it from the beginning. Other verticals also stand to benefit greatly from the automation that wireless brings, but they are more cautious, which means slower in adoption, because there is less urgency, and change is always to some extent painful.

“So what I usually hear from the enterprises is that for sure they plan to become more connected, more automated and smarter, but they want to do it at their own pace and minimize disruption. So it often pays to get into lengthy trials or simply wait for someone else to move in first. So we need to be realistic when we look at the adoption timeline. The technology is way ahead of adoption as always.  We have technology that can introduce automation in industrial settings, but it takes time to have it deployed on scale. But it will have to happen sooner or later.

“The situation in the US is somewhat different from APAC. In APAC – China primarily – mobile operators are taking a leading role, so enterprises can deploy private networks and applications as a service without the need to have much wireless expertise. In other regions, mobile operators play a large role in driving industrial private networks and automation. In the US, many enterprises — especially the large ones — want to own and control the private network. In most cases, they look for a system integrator to deploy and operate the network, but they prefer to keep it independent of mobile operators. They can do that because they can use CBRS.

“This is not an option in other countries – notably in APAC – so there if you want a private 4G/5G network you need an operator. In the US, CBRS will in the long run make it much easier for enterprises to roll out their own networks, but in the short term it takes more effort for an enterprise to deploy a stand-alone private network than to sign up for a service with an operator. So the timeline is going to be shifted forward in the US, but the opportunity we have is to have a strong and innovative foundation for enterprise-owned networks.”

Louisa Barker at IDC

“Many large commercial buildings have building management systems in place to control heating, ventilation, air circulation, etc. But these more comprehensive and complex systems have been too expensive for many facilities managers overseeing small-mid-size buildings which represent the majority of commercial building stock.

“But the market and rate of adoption have changed: we have seen a shift in the market with a wider variety of vendors providing more affordable, lower-maintenance options for tracking and automating building operations. This has been driven by increased demand from facilities managers to drive better environmental sustainability, health, and occupant experience outcomes accelerated during the pandemic. Investments and regulations linked to energy efficiency, including Covid-19 recovery stimulus, are also advancing the push for smart building automation: from the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (revised in 2018) to investments under the US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“We are also seeing significant growth as smart building solutions are implemented at scale across connected places such as university campuses, ports, retail parks, and stadiums. As the market has matured, technology companies are forming new partnerships to cut across verticals and combining forces with AEC, CRE, and professional services firms to develop more holistic solutions. The partnership between Siemens Smart Infrastructure and Qualcomm Technologies Inc. is an example of this.

“Crucially, 5G allows a higher speed of data transmission enabling real-time data aggregation and analytics across a network of smart connected devices. Stakeholders across the building life cycle, from construction to maintenance and demolition are looking to establish a golden thread of information across assets. The intersection of 5G and smart building automation certainly provides fertile ground for innovation. Projects at this intersection are generally at the proof-of-concept stage. This is why we are seeing companies such as Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and Siemens Smart Infrastructure and Johnson Controls and Accenture join forces to test 5G enabled solutions. It is part of the ecosystem shift to cross-vertical holistic solutions.”

Jack Gold at J. Gold Associates

“With building automation, there is an issue of new building versus retrofit. If you are putting up a new building then making everything “smart” is the right thing to do and fairly easy to accomplish. The payback is pretty high over the life of the building, whether it’s all wired or wireless connections to sensors, HVAC, window coverings, elevators, and more. With retrofits, it is harder to make everything “smart” if you can’t get them connected. That’s where a wireless tech like 5G Private Network plays. In many places an alternative like Wi-Fi just won’t cut it. Of course once you put in the network, it can be used not just for building operations, but can also be used for connectivity, assuming you scale and scope the network correctly.

“Siemens is a major player in the smart building market, so it makes sense for them to offer a 5G private network option as a way to outfit brown field solutions for customers rather than trying to pull wires through the potentially huge infrastructure of existing mega-buildings. For its part, Qualcomm arguably makes the best 5G modems out there, so it makes sense for the two to cooperate.

 “And if the market demand takes off, Qualcomm could sell a lot of 5G modems as there are multiple access points needed in a large building, perhaps hundreds. It’s small scale compared to the smartphone market, but it’s still substantial. Even if Siemens chose to put a 5G modem chip in each of its many controllers and sensors for buildings and/or PLCs for factory settings, that could be a very large number of chips for Qualcomm to sell.

“Right now this is all proof of concept, as many smart factories and building projects are. But with a need to increase sustainability, often due to rising energy costs as well as regulations, we’re going to see major interest in outfitting more buildings with smart technology. The challenge is, it often takes a significant amount of time–months to years– to make it all happen in really large buildings. It’s easier in a factory setting as there is more openness to the floor plan. But it will happen regardless, and the payback/ROI can be very substantial, given that the tech will be in use for potentially decades. Also, having sensors and controllers connected wirelessly means it’s easier to move or replace them than if they were all wired in place. 

“Even though it’s hard to know just what’s happening with this Siemens and Qualcomm collaboration, it is still an important partnership for them both in my opinion.”

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