New design approaches to house 5G and IoT at the smart-city edge (Reader Forum)
The constantly increasing demand for reliable, high-throughput digital connectivity is the crucial driver behind the ongoing deployment of 5G cellular systems across North America. In response, telecom providers are investing billions to build out this critical infrastructure.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic – and the more recent global strains and supply chain disruptions, such as production delays, component shortages, and equipment unavailability – is slowing down network rollouts, network providers are doing their best to sustain momentum.
Maintaining the momentum is even more critical under current and evolving usage conditions. Work-at-home and hybrid work environments have led to increased demand for reliable bandwidth, especially in light of the enormous increase in video conferencing and expanded use of streaming video for at-home entertainment.
With the introduction of 5G, high-value infrastructure such as networking equipment, data storage, computing hardware, and power and battery equipment must be located closer to the end user. That, in turn, calls for creating and deploying new kinds of secure physical enclosures for this valuable equipment. This includes incorporating access panels and locking/latching mechanisms to make access for technicians easy and highly secure.
One of the critical challenges associated with adding another generation of wireless equipment into the existing environment is the visual impact it can have on the appearance of communities, especially densely populated towns and urban neighborhoods. Many enclosure manufacturers are working to address this concern by hiding the mechanisms that secure 5G enclosures from view.
Adding new tech to the built environment
5G technology will continue to be woven through and added to our existing physical telecommunications environment. However, it’s not a simple upgrade of existing cellular base stations and antennas.
5G cells are generally referred to as small cell wireless facilities (SWF). At their core, small cells are wireless transmitters and receivers designed to provide greater network capacity in smaller areas. They are much smaller than typical enclosures, with dimensions that enable them to attach to walls and streetlight poles – or even to be integrated into the pole itself.
These small cells are about the size of a picnic cooler or mini fridge, with similar-sized antennas. In order to provide the bandwidth and service performance the 5G network is designed to offer, they are typically installed much closer together, which means there will be many more 5G SWFs installed.
To support these 5G installations, network providers and municipalities are working with a broader range of enclosure options than for previous generations of wireless systems. Since the cells are smaller, there are opportunities to enclose the equipment in existing parts of the everyday built environment, such as poles holding streetlights and traffic lights, bus shelters, park benches and the underside of manhole covers.
New design approaches for these fixtures must be considered. They will need to support access panels featuring locking/latching mechanisms and panel hinges – elements not previously incorporated into light poles or shelter structures. It may also be necessary to design more than one access panel if multiple pieces of equipment from different network operators are incorporated into one fixture.
Current wireless network operators often secure their existing cell enclosures with simple mechanical locks. There is concern that this multiplication of panels, latches and locks in newer enclosures will detract from carefully designed urban environments. Additionally, with more equipment sited in the public space, there is increased risk of theft or vandalism, with more targets of opportunity.
Incorporating more secure electronic access and hidden access hardware solutions can provide improved security for concealed 5G equipment, as well as offer an intelligent way to efficiently and comprehensively manage physical access to these systems.
Advantages of EAS for 5G enclosures
Electronic access solutions (EAS) are designed to work with the types of enclosures being proposed to support 5G rollout and provide effective physical security solutions for these enclosures. Compared to mechanical locks, EAS provides a digital credential that can be easily issued, traced, and even revoked from a central location.
An electronic access solution features three main components: an access control reader or input device, an electromechanical lock and a control system for remotely managing and monitoring the access point. Although RFID cards and electronic PINs can provide secure access options for technicians, many network providers are implementing EAS platforms that supply an electronic, time-based key via a mobile app on a technician’s smartphone.
This provides multiple layers of personalized security:
- The phone and its phone number are unique to the technician. Many smartphones already have biometric-type security that uses a thumbprint or facial recognition scan to unlock the phone.
- The smartphone app used by the technician to download the key from the cloud platform is secure and password-protected.
- The electronic key loaded to the app is site- and event-specific. It can only be used to open a designated enclosure and only for a scheduled period of time.
When combined with a robust, secure and intelligent electronic lock, these cloud-based access controllers can provide simple solutions for providing time-based access control to 5G enclosures, no matter where they are located.
Some EAS configurations use Bluetooth readers built into the electronic lock to receive the digital key directly from the technician’s phone or tablet. However, to provide access solutions that are less visible and “blend in” with enclosures in bus shelters or light poles, a simpler configuration is possible.
For example, the technician calls for a digital key when they arrive at an enclosure. The key is sent directly by the cloud-based management system to the cell site, which unlocks the access panel and tracks the service call, including monitoring when the panel is re-secured. This makes it possible to use electronic locks that do not require external Bluetooth readers to be incorporated into the enclosure design.
Growth of edge IoT and compute tech
It’s not just 5G components that are now being woven into our built environment, needing reliable, secure enclosures and access solutions. The expansion of work-at-home, the increase in smart traffic control systems and downtown security cameras and the growing potential for autonomous vehicles (AV) are all factors driving the increased need for digital processing equipment to support Internet of Things (IoT) applications and edge computing systems.
While cloud-based computing applications are immensely powerful and fast, there are applications where even the millisecond latency inherent in these systems can present difficulties. AV systems, as they evolve, will need real-time processing capabilities at the intersections and along the highways where these vehicles will operate. There are also network topologies being envisioned where, instead of continuously pumping raw data up to cloud processing platforms, denser data like video is processed in locally positioned edge computing processors for more efficient and cleaner handling of the content by cloud systems.
This means that enclosures supporting 5G networks may also need to co-locate and co-support digital processing equipment for these applications. In this case, there may be a need for more than one access panel to secure equipment from different companies in one enclosure.
Ultimately, this provides an added justification for investing in EAS platforms designed to fit more seamlessly into enclosures located within buildings. It can help ensure that, as more digital technology is placed in public places, like offices and apartment buildings, they are securely enclosed and protected without detracting from their environment.
Working with access solutions experts
Companies that make light poles and bus shelters have not typically been challenged with incorporating digital network equipment into their structures, so there may be a learning curve about both technical and design decisions that need to be made, including access hardware options.
Working with companies that have experience in designing highly reliable access hardware can help select the right access hardware solutions. They often have existing portfolios of hinges, locks, latches and complete EAS platforms engineered specifically to work in outdoor enclosures exposed to weather conditions and proven to be secure against tampering and break-in attempts.
They also have experience engineering hinges and access devices to be “hidden” in the public environment. These access hardware manufacturers can work with light pole manufacturers and others that are adapting their existing products to serve as 5G and digital technology enclosures. They have proven experience in selecting the most appropriate products from their portfolios and customizing them to fit both technical and aesthetic requirements.
5G wireless offers the higher, faster bandwidth and reduced latency our fast-evolving digital world demands. To ease the installation of these systems across our communities, companies that supply ordinary components like light poles to our built environment are challenged to evolve their systems to serve as enclosures for this new generation of digital equipment.
A thoughtful approach to the access requirements of these enclosures requires carefully balancing excellent security and appealing design. The right hidden access solutions, leveraging technologies already in use for many telecom applications offer an effective and proven platform to satisfy these requirements.
Todd Schwanger is a Commercial Product Manager for Southco Inc. He has over 15 years of experience working in various roles at Southco, including engineering and project management. In his current role, he manages a portfolio of access hardware products and launches new solutions to grow Southco’s product portfolio. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University and a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and holds a PMP certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI).