Fast and reliable digital connectivity – fibre broadband, WiFi and mobile coverage – is the third most important factor for commercial tenants when selecting a new premises after location and rent, according to a survey by Cluttons. The survey goes on to say that by demonstrating improvements in connectivity, most landlords (77%) have been able to achieve increases in rents, while 72% were able to achieve a reduction in voids.
It’s easy to see why in-building connectivity is so important to tenants.
Mobile working is now the norm for most office workers. The ability to collaborate digitally, hot desk and join colleagues on video calls anywhere in the world is essential. Furthermore businesses, including retailers and transport operators, need connectivity to accept card payments and conduct other essential business activities. The advent of so-called Industry 4.0 and the internet of things has also enabled sectors such as manufacturing and healthcare to use sensors and data to transform productivity, safety, patient diagnosis and treatment.
However, an estimated 24% of buildings have poor or bad indoor 4G coverage in the West Midlands, while 8% of outdoor locations also have poor or no coverage, according to independent analysts Umlaut.
These figures are based on actual tests of in-building mobile connectivity, rather than the averaged estimates Ofcom uses, and are likely to be closer to the real picture in the UK more broadly. In some locations, these indoor mobile coverage figures are worse for key buildings such as hospitals and transport hubs. While some organisations have been able to establish corporate WiFi networks to compensate, others have struggled to offer WiFi at a sufficient density, speed and reliability to provide fast and reliable indoor wireless connectivity or have struggled to access the fibre broadband connections that are needed.
Crucially, given the growing operational demand for connectivity, only 47% of office workers said their broadband speed was fast and it is a similar picture when it comes to mobile and WiFi coverage, according to Cluttons.
So why do so many buildings not come with fast and reliable indoor connectivity?
Some of the challenge around mobile coverage relates to a building’s proximity to mobile masts, combined with the fact that some old and new building materials reflect or block radio waves. But some of the challenge also relates to a lack of expertise among planners, surveyors, architects and construction companies when designing and deploying fibre broadband and WiFi connectivity in new developments.
Retrofitting connectivity to existing buildings is often expensive because it involves channeling new ducts, laying new cabling and physical infrastructure, all while disrupting existing tenants and buildings. By contrast, installing the right connectivity infrastructure at point of build is relatively inexpensive and can attract high-quality tenants sooner, increasing yields.
WM5G recently advised NHS Digital on the guidelines it should put in place to ensure all new NHS hospitals come with connectivity built-in by design, as part of the construction process. This consisted of detailed, written guidelines to help NHS Digital and NHS Property ensure all new hospitals come with great connectivity from day one, reducing barriers to patients and clinicians benefiting from new health technologies that will boost patient care, as well as future proofing buildings to allow easier access for upgrades down the line.
This involved specifying the requirements for ‘passive infrastructure’ for connectivity such as ducts and poles, ‘active infrastructure’ such as network hardware and cabling, and best practice planning, compensation and access arrangements.
This foresight when it comes to defining clear best practice wireless connectivity guidelines for new buildings will be crucial to the NHS’s ability to improve patient care at best value for the public purse. Not only does fast and reliable connectivity open up new, more efficient clinical and administrative approaches, but it also supports access to new clinical technologies. Planning for this at the point of construction means this can be delivered at the lowest possible cost, while providing the infrastructure to release efficiencies across the piece.
Of course, this is just one example of the value of building in connectivity by design but the principles apply to a range of public and commercial settings.
As we move into an increasingly digital age, failing to plan for connectivity or approaching it as an afterthought will increasingly translate into higher costs, both in terms of retrofitting connectivity at a later date or failing to optimise the attractiveness of buildings to tenants.
With hybrid working becoming the new normal, can you afford to let your next development fail the connectivity test?