Connectivity in old buildings

12 November 2020

Internet connectivity problems are common in old houses. After all, the likes of John Nash, Decimus Burton and architects who plied their trade in the last century didn’t have internet connectivity in mind when they were commissioned to design property.

However, many businesses in the UK face this challenge, too. Think about it: lots of companies now operate out of – well, they did before the Covid-19 pandemic – Georgian townhouses that ordinary folk can no longer afford to live in.

For context on what “old” means, all buildings erected before 1700 that ‘contain a significant proportion of their original fabric’ is listed under the listed building status in the UK.

So, you’ve moved your offices to a beautiful period building in Bath or a Georgian townhouse in London’s Mayfair. However, its unforgiving design is not conducive to 2020 network infrastructure and your internet signal is for want of a better word, poor. Yet you have committed to an eye-watering rental agreement. Now what?

Glyn Brice - principal systems engineer at Extreme Networks, says that due to the way that Georgian townhouses are built - with thick walls filled with rubble - they can be more challenging to deal with. “This is why we look to the flooring area,” Brice says. “With floors in Georgian townhouses often being made of oak, our teams can be imaginative and flip the entire installation on its head. This means that rather than running cabling through walls, we can go through the floor instead. As a team, we also need to be somewhat flexible and quick to problem solve when kitting out any older or listed buildings in case any other design challenges arise along the way.”

Alex Shuker, CTO at DrayTek, a manufacturer of broadband CPE, says the  installation of traditional access points (where each access point is hard wired back to the network switch) through a property is the optimum configuration for a wireless deployments, but this is an expensive choice if it involves building work to run the network trunking and install the wall plate and data point. What if the property is listed?

“For listed building, planning considerations may be another reason this is not an option,” he adds. “A viable alternative choice is to install a mesh based wireless solution where each access point communicates to the next hop over wireless and only the root node is connected to ethernet cabling.”

However, each listed property may have unique restrictions, prohibiting engineers from carrying out the desired work. Brice says that if this is the case, “you can get creative” – this is where  looking at other specific technology solutions comes in. “For example, we can explore using a wireless mesh device which only requires a three-pin socket,” he adds. “This technology offers comprehensive mesh networking features to create secure, flexible and scalable networks without the need for any cabling. However, probably the biggest benefit regarding the use of meshing technologies within listed buildings is the ability to provide services without needing to interfere with the fabric of the building. This reduces cost and speed of deployment, whilst maintaining the original fabric of the building.”

Being creative is one way of achieving the desired goal, but there are other ways, too.

Shuker says “a really convenient option with this are small form factor access points that have an integrated plug socket and plug directly into a wall electrical socket”. He cites an example – the DrayTek VigorAP 802, which can act as a mesh node to a mesh root, such as the wall-mount DrayTek VigorAP 903 or ceiling-mount VigorAP 1000C.

Of course, unless the premises are part of a uniform terrace, no building is exactly the same as the next, even if they were built at the same time. Lewis White, managing director infrastructure and networking, CommScope says each will come with its own connectivity challenges -  whether it’s the size, density and volume of people and traffic, ‘green design’ or even buildings with lots of glass windows blocking radio signals. “So, it’s not necessarily a question of old and new and more whether the building is set up to deliver for the expectations of those using it,” he says. “Many office-spaces aren’t properly setup to deliver wireless mobile connectivity, for example. Indeed, CommScope research found that nearly half of UK office workers admitted having to step out of the building to make a phone call or access 4G data services on their mobile device due to a lack of coverage indoors.”

Then you have to factor in cost. Basic economics dictate that in most cases, the bigger the job, the bigger the cost. I ask how that works with old and sometimes crumbling buildings.

White says all buildings are assessed on a case-by-case basis so it’s hard to provide a specific answer to this.

Each and every building will come with its own connectivity challenges - whether it’s the size, density and volume of people and traffic, ‘green design’ or even buildings with lots of glass windows blocking radio signals

Each and every building will come with its own connectivity challenges - whether it’s the size, density and volume of people and traffic, ‘green design’ or even buildings with lots of glass windows blocking radio signals

“What we can say is that we rely on our partners – many of which have been installing telecoms infrastructure into these types of buildings for many years – to advise as to the right infrastructure,” he continues. “Of course, with a wireless deployment, there may be less of a requirement for expansive cabling with more connectivity provided wirelessly. This will likely have a positive effect on the impact of IT infrastructure in older properties.”

Regardless of building style and size, solid walls inhibit Wi-Fi signals so can cause an issue with how much coverage a single Wi-Fi router or access point can provide. Shuker adds that the latest wireless standards often rely on the 5Ghz frequency range which although it offers higher network speeds does have lower penetration capabilities compared to 2.4GHz. “The speed of the wireless network is influenced by the quality of the signal being received by the access point, so solid walls can pose a deployment challenge,” he adds. “The solution to this is to plan out the positioning of the access point and check that each mesh node is receiving a decent signal from the next hop. Built-in access point setup tools will often provide a speed or signal checker so that the optimum position of the access point can be determined and to help identify any areas which would benefit from further coverage.”

Talking of solutions, another well-known supplier in this space is Huber+Suhner. Its range of SENCITY small cell/DAS antennas are designed “to be simple and attractive to seamlessly fit into any office or home” to provide wide wireless coverage, according to Cristina Olimpieri, the firm’s product manager RF antennas.

“To generate the same high-quality connectivity with thick walls in the way, the network needs to be dense by installing multiple antennas that offer both capacity and coverage within a given space. These kinds of antennas are coming on to the market to address similar challenges of network,” she adds.

Although it’s clear, indeed obvious, that thick walls will only provide resistance to fluid connectivity, Brice warns that the worst material to work with is in fact…paper. “Given the amount of moisture it holds, it absorbs anything it bonds with,” he says. “Stone is also particularly tricky to work with for a number of reasons. Old stone walls are often protected so can either not be disturbed, and if they are, they must be handled carefully which takes money, time, and resources. In older buildings, a stone wall may be upwards of 30cm in depth while marble floors can require diamond drilling.”

Having spoken to a handful of enterprises to find out how they have adapted to working in older buildings, it would appear that one way to navigate the connectivity challenge is to use powerline extenders.  Roy Castleman, founder and managing director of EC-MSP, a London-based IT support company focusing on small and medium-sized businesses, says his company has deployed this technique, which works by essentially passing the ethernet over the power. “In other words, the exact opposite of power over ethernet,” he says. “Firstly, one extender needs to be plugged into a power socket close to the entry point of your internet connection. Then an Ethernet cable should be connected from your router to the extender. Next, plug an extender into another power socket near a device you wish to get connected to the internet. You should then be able to plug an Ethernet cable into the device and the adapter. As long as both sockets are on the same ring, the Ethernet connection will be passed over the power line to the device.”

Sounds reasonably straightforward, right? However, there are some factors to bear in mind. “There are some drawbacks to this solution, mainly that they can be impacted by electrical interference, some speed is lost using this method and finally the more extenders in use the less reliable the solution will be,” adds Castleman.

While the focus of this feature is on the buildings themselves, it’s important to consider the surrounding area. For example, older cities where the Romans set up home, such as London, have underground tunnels. Can these incredible feats from ancient times be put to good use in 2020?

Brice says that from his firm’s experience of working with underground tunnels, “we cannot generalise” and say whether all can be put to good use, or if they are a hindrance. It is all circumstantial based on the tunnel’s location as well as date of creation.

“With underground tunnels in older cities, such as London, the first question we ask is whether there is access to building plans,” says Brice.  “Once we have the building plans, we can then identify any potential restrictions, and make a call on whether a tunnel can be put to good use. Generally, the newer the tunnel, the easier it is to navigate. Firstly, as building plans will be available to view and secondly as we would be confident that the tunnel would have been lined correctly for cabling (as per the latest building guidelines). Having said that, we have worked with older underground tunnels and there are a number of ways to handle these.

White says that “we all read countless reports and industry research discussing the critical role of superfast broadband as a business enabler” - and CommScope absolutely agrees that it’s a necessity for any organisation committed to delivering a first-class service.

“Yet, despite this, I still find it challenging to access the Internet or make calls consistently while I’m taking the train,” adds White. “And it’s even more of a challenge underground. The good news is, it is possible.”

White explains how CommScope has been involved in innovative projects across Europe, including the world’s longest rail tunnel which runs underground for 57 kilometres, with trains traveling at 250 kilometres per hour.

“Bringing the available network from the track side into the train - especially underground in tunnels - is probably the biggest challenge faced by operators when looking to provide seamless mobile coverage to rail passengers and CommScope have solutions that can solve this challenge too,” he says.

The challenges are evident, but not insurmountable. However, surely there must be situations where a vendor has been unable to complete a job owing to the tricky working conditions?

Brice says a pre-survey to evaluate the customer’s needs and the complexity of a building is always useful where possible. By using the results of a survey, the vendor can take the steps which are required to prepare for the job, such as outreaching to regulatory bodies to request any installation permissions.

Nevertheless, he says: “It is very rare to come across cases where we have not been able to complete a job. However, rural sites come to mind here. With many often having cultural or religious significance, and no access to mains electricity, these sites can be very challenging. However, to avoid reaching the point of disappointing a customer mid-job, usually the pre-survey and our own assessments can identify these issues before we start working on the site.”

Even though the buildings in question were built centuries ago, they are not alone in posing problems. White says that today, buildings are being designed to be environmentally friendly, energy efficient and also - especially those with lots of glass windows - to keep heat in and keep UV rays out.

“This does block radio frequencies from outside macro cells from getting into the building, negatively effecting indoor wireless coverage,” he says. “As more and more older buildings are upgraded with low-E glass the requirements for in-buildings cellular solutions are set to increase.”

White says this is where dedicated in-building wireless comes in. “Yet achieving the goal of reliable indoor mobile coverage is a significant challenge for operators, especially when businesses are based in large and complex buildings as we mentioned,” he continues. “There is also an ongoing debate around whose responsibility it is to cater for the end-users; with mobile operators, building owners and facilities administrators all playing a role. We believe that establishing a dialogue and collaborative culture between these parties is essential – as businesses will look elsewhere if they can’t get access to first class facilities, with wireless coverage, capacity and speed assured to enable productivity across their organisations.”

It’s also important to remember that adding cabling, access points and other modern technology to old buildings might not only be an eyesore, but there’s a serious risk to the building itself. They’ve survived years of inclement weather, so it would be shame if they were to succumb to a masonry drill and other tools of the trade.

Brice says that  having ample time is crucial when working with any type of older building. “When putting in place a networking infrastructure, you need the confidence that you’re not going to damage the fabric of the building,” he adds. “This means going through a number of steps to gain permission such as creating a solid plan and sending this to an authority to sign-off (all while leaving time for any flexibility in case design challenges arise along the way). Such steps were taken when we worked on old established colleges and universities - with designs ranging from medieval to Georgian - all across Europe.”

Having said that, Brice says there is no specific type of older building that’s more difficult to kit out.

“Every building brings its own challenges and difficulties, but we generally find that the older the building is, the more difficult it is to wire-up,” he says. “One reason being is that most restrictions arise when building regulations are in place and with many older buildings often being listed or protected, regulations need to be navigated sensitively - which requires both an accurate building plan as well as time.”

Brice warns that the biggest challenge can arise when looking at plans for older buildings as in “some cases they’re not super clear” and in others, they may not exist.

“We have found this with the likes of Gothic buildings which has resulted in us working closely with our partners - and sometimes cable contractors and/or certified engineers - to conduct our own investigations,” Brice continues. “These are often in the form of a pre-survey/audit. With these checks in place, we can analyse the physical aspects of a building and from there, identify the parameters we need to work within to mount access points (APs), for example. During one check in the past on a royal historical palace, we found shells used for soundproofing underneath the floorboards. We could not disturb these so worked closely with the customer to ensure we didn’t break any rules”.

Although buildings erected centuries ago were not designed for the connected world we operate in today, they can be adapted with a bit of ingenuity.

I do wonder, though, if the pandemic isn’t brought under control, whether the next in-building comms feature will be about spare rooms and gardens sheds.