In the future, the way that we work, create and collaborate will be underpinned by indoor connectivity.
Imagine going to your office and feeling like your remote coworkers are there with you. They will not only appear to be in the room but can draw on a whiteboard or sketch during meetings. According to Ericsson Research, it might even be possible to smell and taste a cake baked by your coworker during a virtual coffee break.
Your workspace will be designed just for you – the right temperature, privacy and setup for your specific task or mood.
In the near future, offices will have to support more technology like augmented reality (AR), digital twins and high-definition video conferencing. These buildings will be smart, using technology to save energy, keep you safe and manage the environment. This will require high-performing indoor connectivity that is energy efficient and cost effective.
So, how do we realize this? Let’s explore the future office and how businesses, building owners, and communication service providers can make it a reality.
What will future offices look like?
Think about an office that is more than simply a place to work. Instead, it's a space designed for you, making you feel happy, healthy and productive.
In this office, your computer setup will be completely digitalized. There will be holographic communication and the capability to physically interact with 3D virtual objects, enhancing the immediacy and tangibility of meetings.
Why is better indoor connectivity a crucial component to unlocking this future?
In a world where everything is digital and online, having reliable connectivity is becoming just as important for buildings as water, heating, and electricity.
Significantly improving indoor connectivity beyond what is currently possible with 4G and Wi-Fi will help us do more things at work and revolutionize how future offices adapt to us and others around us. Essentially, connectivity inside buildings needs an upgrade to keep up with our digital lives.
How will indoor connectivity need to evolve to realize the office of the future?
We need high-performing indoor solutions to enable technologies like virtual reality (VR) and digital twins.
5G-enabled smart sensors must also replace older IoT systems that are not as safe or efficient. To ensure offices offer fully immersive and connected experiences by 2030, we could need millions of these smart sensors in a single building. It is like giving the office of the future superpowers.
“Offices will mimic the journey of smartphones - from simple devices to personalized digital hubs.”
Real estate may still be all about "location, location, location," but connectivity is quickly becoming a core requirement for future offices.
Henrik Eriksson, Director of Workplace Strategy and Tenant Advisory at Vasakronan, a leading Swedish property company, believes future offices will mimic the journey of smartphones – from simple devices with one or two features to personalized digital hubs we cannot live without.
Through sensors and actuators, we will be able to talk to the building and request personalized music, lighting, backgrounds and even fragrances. The building might even sense our mood and build a personalized experience for us.
Indoor 5G is more than just a market; it's a necessity,” says Katherine Ainley, CEO of Ericsson UK and Ireland. “Currently, indoor coverage for 5G only sits at around 10-15 percent, representing a significant market opportunity for operators to address. With the introduction of 5G standalone (SA) networks and advancements like network slicing, indoor coverage can be revolutionized.”
Compared to 4G, 5G provides better speed and security, lower latency, and the ability to handle data volumes up to 1,000 times more. It is also more reliable and requires less infrastructure than most Wi-Fi deployments. With 5G, it is also possible to create a location-aware network that can locate the exact position of assets and people with < 1m accuracy (with no additional equipment or sensors). This opens up many new transformative use cases for real estate owners and enterprise.
In the Ericsson ConsumerLab report, 5G: The next wave, researchers found that new 5G customers have high demands for 5G network availability, including indoors, yet only 33 percent of 5G users typically perceive being connected to 5G more than 50 percent of the time.
“The industry has seen a growing demand for more capacity and speed over the years. This applies not just to outdoor environments, but also indoor venues, because as a customer, you don’t differentiate between the two.”
Mark Düsener, Head of Mobile Networks, Mobile Services & B2B Telco, Swisscom
Swisscom and Ericsson have already deployed a new feature that can deliver high-capacity indoor 5G to enterprise customers within a 10 km radius, from one centralized location. While in Qatar, Ericsson and Ooredoo deployed a shareable 5G indoor solution in stadiums nationwide and achieved speeds of 1.5 Gbps.
Why is relying on outdoor coverage indoors impractical?
To use an analogy, cellular spectrum is like sunlight. It comes in through windows (and walls) to such an extent that you often barely need any lamps. 5G is like sunshine on a cloudy day. It streams into a building, just not as brilliantly.
Outside-in coverage with 5G is more complex to maintain on its higher frequency spectrum bands, mid-band and millimeter wave. Many modern buildings also have infrared-reflective windows, which reflect the sun and help keep the building cool. This coating leads to weaker signal strength from the outside in, especially for higher frequency bands.
This means you need a variety of metaphorical “lamps” inside the building to provide full coverage.
The office of the future and other indoor settings will likely feature a mix of different methods for connectivity.
Wi-Fi is useful for many different purposes and can provide best-effort internet connectivity. For instance, a small hotel might have Wi-Fi in the lobby and rooms, which is great for casual internet use. But if you need to guarantee high performance and reliability for a lot of people and for critical operations like security cameras, sensors, and other smart systems, it is better to use a secure cellular network.
This offers more capacity, a stronger focus on security, and can also handle different levels of service quality. It also eliminates the need for additional logins or switching to Wi-Fi. Cellular networks are also being integrated with AI and distributed compute in the network, which improves the overall service.
Neutral Host-led model
- Ownership: Neutral host (NH) owns the solution
- Access: NH has relationship with property owner
- Funding: The funding for the network solution comes from either the building owner or Communications Service Provider (CSP)
- Advantage: CSP’s scale in-building coverage faster with easier access to tenants/enterprise and if property owner pays, at no CAPEX. Buildings owners have more solution choice and influence over installation.
- Disadvantage: CSP’s need to trust NH sales and operational capabilities.
- Ownership: CSP owns the solution
- Access: CSP has access/relationships with the Property owner
- Funding: The funding for the solution comes from the CSP as the lead carrier
- Advantage: Control over the venue relationship/solution
- Disadvantage: Requires more upfront alignment between operators on design criteria, cost splitting, venue owner terms etc
- Ownership: Enterprise owns the solution
- Driver for enterprise investment: Lack of funding from carriers
Need for wireless network coverage and service
- Funding: Enterprise or tenant funded
- Advantage: No risk business model
CAPEX offset for CSP
- Disadvantage: Limited operator influence over the solution
So, how do we turn indoor connectivity into a business that makes sense? There are three primary business models today:
- In the first, service providers can deploy 5G indoor networks to connect their customers. In some places, service providers could offer roaming for competitors’ subscribers.
- The second model is a private network owned by enterprises themselves.
- The third is to use neutral hosts.
Let’s now dive into the benefits of this third business model.
A neutral host is a company that owns indoor telecom equipment and lets one or more service providers use it for their customers. They handle the initial investment and deal with building owners, but the customer relationships stay with the service providers.
By joining a neutral host network, service providers can quickly and cost-effectively expand to reach more customers in buildings that lack good indoor internet.
Sharing indoor networks is not new, but in many situations service providers now have more freedom to choose what and how they share, thanks to new neutral host models. The neutral host approach also helps service providers save on upfront costs, and they're protected by net neutrality in this setup.
According to an Altman-Solon study done for Ericsson, the neutral host trend is strongest in North America and Europe, with strong neutral host players representing 30 to 40 percent of the indoor equipment market outside of China in 2020.
Neutral host players are expected to represent half of the indoor equipment market outside of China by 2025.
Katherine Ainley says there is a growing conversation in the UK and Ireland, particularly in places where footfall is high but sporadic, such as in dense office blocks.
She points to the London Underground as one of the first public examples of a neutral host deployment, in which a neutral host provider signed agreements with all the major service providers to create better connectivity on the Underground.
“We see the commercial model evolving,” she says. “There is a real mismatch between where the connectivity is and where people want to use it. For operators, this is an excellent opportunity to build out and grow their network in a relatively straightforward way.”
Mikael Lundman, CEO of Swedish neutral host company Proptivity, says that with the increasing demand for reliable connectivity, building owners want a simple solution.
"The phone is your wallet now. It is the key to your car. Real-estate owners need a tool to guarantee they can invest and provide a good indoor network. Neutral hosts can fill that gap."
Mikael Lundman, Proptivity CEO
Indoor solutions will be needed in many locations, including airports, shopping centers, stadiums, universities and hotels, which will all require the same small-cell solutions.
Mark Düsener of Swisscom says: “High-performing indoor 5G is key to full scale societal digitalization. As far as Swisscom is concerned, everyone in Switzerland should have access to 5G everywhere, whether they’re in the office, at the airport, or in a shopping center.”
With this in mind, standardized solutions will help from both a technological and ecosystem perspective. One example already in place is the set of common specifications created by service providers in the UK, including some on neutral host deployments.
However, the business model behind each location is fundamentally different, depending on who takes the lead. But what if service providers or neutral hosts could tie revenues to the value of connectivity within larger contexts?
For example, building owners might include the cost of connectivity in what they charge consumers. For example, high-value connectivity could be valued at one percent of an annual university tuition fee or a flight ticket and bundled within the upfront price.
Each setting would require some work to customize, but the technology to enable this is already available, for example, combining network slicing with communications APIs to develop tailored service and content packages. Once the industry can put these concepts in place, building owners could "plug and play," like at a food court in a shopping mall with multiple restaurant options.
“If you're just going to work on a document, you can do that at home. Offices are now places to drive collaboration and imagination. And that requires fantastic technology.”
Katherine Ainley, CEO of Ericsson UK and Ireland
In Ericsson IndustryLab's Dematerialized Office report, researchers talked to more than 7,800 white-collar decision makers and employees from 16 countries who were among the first to use AR, VR, or virtual assistants. Both decision makers and employees expected by 2030 technologies like digital desks that change for different tasks, interactive online meetings, and that virtual cake we talked about earlier.
At Ericsson Research, they're imagining a future where technology and advanced networks create the Internet of Senses. This means you could use extended reality (XR) devices to digitally touch, taste, and smell things.
As networks evolve into 6G, they will gain radar-like abilities to sense their surroundings. One scenario is holographic communication – a fully immersive 3D experience.
Many of the first projects in this area are in cultural contexts like museums and performing arts. The Green Planet AR experience in Regent Street London ushered viewers into a secret kingdom of plants alongside Sir David Attenborough. Earlier in 2023, Ericsson and Vodafone created an immersive AR event at the opera in Germany.
By 2030, there will be enough new sensors and smart devices powered by cellular networks to replace old, less secure IoT systems. Some of these sensors – called zero-energy devices – won't even need batteries, making them extremely versatile.
Erik Wallin, Chief Ecosystem Officer and founder of ProptechOS, an ecosystem of smart city applications built on an open-source foundation, says these changes will help building owners and businesses meet their sustainability goals in the office of the future. Interestingly, he believes most of the work will be in brownfield deployments in older, unconnected buildings.
Connectivity sensors and standardized data will enable inexpensive AI programs in older buildings. "This means that you don't have to start from scratch, he says. “There's a huge opportunity for retrofitting with 5G. We will be turning our buildings into good inhabitants of the smart city."
The environmental benefits of indoor connectivity will not only be for commercial buildings either. Together with Ericsson and Kiona, a building management solution provider, Carbon Trust found that a connected edge AI management system resulted in savings of 1 kTonne of CO2e and about 17.3 million kWh of energy consumed in 356 residential buildings across Finland and Sweden.
Henrik Eriksson thinks that by 2030, being in future offices will feel like an amusement park. Connected buildings will create an experience filled with learning, beauty, fun, and even escapism.
This new setup, combined with personal interaction, will shape how you feel, think, and act at work. So, even though you'll still be going to work, it won't be anything like today's offices.
How do you think better indoor connectivity will improve your health, well-being and productivity at the office by 2030?
With additional thanks to:
Kumar Balachandran, Gemma Swift, Erik Nordell, Yalu Fan, Niclas Välme, Anders Erlandsson and Peter Eriksson