Establishing a broadband connection on a construction site can be challenging. It’s easy to downgrade the importance of gaining internet access if you already have a smartphone with a data plan.
Need to share information, why not use the technology in your pocket to call, text or email the other person?
That’s great until the complexity of the project increases.
What if you need to access and share building plans and 3D CAD diagrams?
How will you communicate with multiple teams across the site?
How will off-site stakeholders be kept up-to-date?
Is it likely different groups involved in the project will have to collaborate with each other?
How will sensors deployed across the site collect and share data?
How will site workers co-ordinate the use of CCTV, or other measures required for site security?
Establishing on-site network access
A construction site needs an internet connection. To that end, you’ll want a network which is robust, can handle significant data load, and is fast enough to do the job. A single smartphone with a data connection isn’t going to cut it.
And if your mobile network doesn’t provide good service at the site location?
These days, the need for a flexible communications solution is a necessity for effective site operations and management. Yet finding a system that works can be a frustrating experience; the right solution is not always the easiest to arrange.
Obstacles to broadband installation on a construction site
Project time constraints
Short-term construction projects which last weeks, rather than months or years, are a growing reality. This can make it difficult to set up a standard fibre network, as the minimum contract period may end up being unsuitable for the project duration.
Compounding this is the necessary lead time for installing fibre- or copper-wire infrastructure. In some cases, this could mean being without a connection for weeks or months at a time.
Delivering fibre broadband to a site can involve complex negotiations, particularly if the site is in an isolated area — from legal permission to install equipment on third-party land, to arranging road closures with the local authority to dig up the road surface.
4G cellular networks are increasingly being used to get around these issues; sometimes as a solution for the duration of the project, but also as a quick ‘stop gap’, while a permanent wired solution is being prepared. However, accessing a 4G network may not always be an option, depending on the location.
Internet provider costs and services
In addition to the extended time, installation charges for fixed-line broadband on a construction site can be costly — a reflection of the size, scope, and/or difficulty of the undertaking.
Inexperienced or non-specialist providers may not always be flexible enough to meet the unique demands of a project, or have the ability to provide support across the project life cycle. Finding the right provider therefore requires a degree of research, negotiation and trust.
Construction sites can be a perilous environment for networking technology. Equipment can be damaged by a sharp blow or fall, so anything exposed to ordinary on-site activity must be protected.
This can be mitigated against by using ruggedised equipment, placing tech in reinforced cabinets, or otherwise housing it out of harm’s way, e.g. by burying equipment underground or affixing it to the exterior of a building.
No two construction projects are going to be the same, so the infrastructure should have the ability to adapt to the physical space. For example, a multi-site project could end up with some sites being connected wirelessly, others using fixed-lines, or even a hybrid of the two.
Sites also experience constant physical change. For example, a tower block in progress will have more floorspace added from week to week. Additional physical space will need to be planned for when thinking about building a network to last over the course of the project.
Phased solution delivery
The conflict that exists between the immediate need for an internet connection at the start of a construction project and the long lead times for installing fixed-line networks has led to several bespoke services and solutions being offered by service providers.
Wireless solutions are often employed as an initial ‘quick fix’; the first stage of a phased rolling project that can give way to fixed-wired connectivity as it becomes viable / available later in the project timeline.
Wireless connections are quick to deploy and comparatively cheap to set up, although the cost of using and maintaining wireless broadband may become disadvantageous over time.
4G cellular broadband
At the most basic end of the spectrum is the option of a 4G dongle attached to a desktop or laptop. This is a particularly crude way of getting the job done, and is only going to suit the smallest and least demanding of site projects.
Aside from bandwidth restrictions and data limits, network coverage and the inability to transfer data internally may create issues, unless some form of ad-hoc networking is set up, or a point-to-point link is created, e.g. using a Bluetooth connection between two devices.
It is possible to share mobile broadband by tethering a device to the phone. This could be as straightforward as connecting a laptop to a smartphone with a USB cable. Nowadays, it is more common to tether to a smartphone wirelessly, by setting up the phone to work as a wireless hotspot.
A phone in wireless hotspot mode acts like a bit like a WiFi router: a single connection to the internet is established between the phone and an external (mobile) network. This connection is then made available for other users to access by finding the network name (SSID) and entering a password, if one has been set.
Be aware that some mobile networks place strict restrictions on the amount of data that can be consumed while tethering.
Setting up a wireless hotspot with a phone can be inconvenient for the phone user, as it means the phone must stay within range.
An improvement on this solution is the use of a portable hotspot device. These are often marketed under the term ‘MiFi’. A MiFi hotspot uses a SIM card to connect to a mobile network. The connection can typically be shared with up to ten devices.
As with dongles, portable hotspots are great if the physical site is very small and user demand is low. They cannot support connectivity over longer distances, can be limited in terms of speed and bandwidth, and do not provide strong security against unauthorised access.
Another issue is the resilience of the mobile network itself. If the nearest cell tower undergoes maintenance or is unexpectedly taken offline, your internet access will be impacted.
In addition, bandwidth and download speeds can vary considerably at different times of the day.
There are creative solutions for mitigating against these deficiencies. Some service providers offer network-agnostic connections. This means the connection is not dependent on any one mobile network. Multiple SIM cards for different carriers will be installed in a wireless router; allowing devices to connect to the internet via the mobile network of choice / with the best coverage — or an alternative if the main network goes offline.
A bonded 4G connection may be offered in addition to, or separately from, a network-agnostic one. A bonded connection will aggregate multiple lines into one for improved speed and reliability.
Bonded connections can also act as insurance against network failure: if a line stops working, the remaining lines can compensate for the outage.
Satellite broadband offers coverage almost anywhere, provided a dish can be pointed in the direction of the satellite. It doesn’t matter where you are or how remote the location.
Satellite connections are often used to complement cellular broadband, although it can be employed as a fully formed alternative.
Despite the convenience, a satellite connection does have notable drawbacks:
- Speed: while this has improved over recent years, it still doesn’t compare with 4G or fibre
- Latency: the signal travels very long distances to and from the orbiting satellite. This generates lag, which impacts the effectiveness of real-time applications such as VoIP or video teleconferencing
- Resilience: satellite connections are prone to disruption by bad weather or atmospheric conditions
In addition to tight data caps, the range of available hardware can be limited. A dish will also have to be installed outside a trailer / temporary building on-site, which could affect decisions about site layout.
Fixed-wire broadband access
Although the lead times are much longer, fixed-line fibre will deliver improved speed, as well as the versatility needed for scaling a project.
If connectivity was established at the beginning of the project via the cellular network, a choice will have to be made as to whether the network should remain active. The equipment could be removed once the wired connection is in place, or kept as a backup in case anything should happen to the ‘main’ network.
If it is viable, an ADSL connection could be installed prior to delivery of a fibre connection. This could then be phased out of use when the fibre network is up and running, or kept as a back-up. However, there will likely be costs involved in keeping additional connections live for this purpose.
As with cellular broadband, service providers may offer fixed-line bonded connections for improved speed and robustness. Leased lines may be provided if there is a need to boost network capacity, or to cope with high volumes of upstream data.
Sharing fixed-wire connectivity
Delivering site-wide connectivity on a fibre backbone, particularly if the site is large and constantly changing in size/shape, may require a flexible network architecture to match. One way of achieving this is to install a series of wireless access points across the site. The access points can then be linked wirelessly to a hub, e.g. a router in the site office connected via ethernet to a fibre network.
A fully wired network could be installed if the project is relatively small in scope, but doing this could become complex and costly if the network needs to be extended at intervals to encompass a growing physical space.
On-site connectivity may be difficult to maintain due to the high probability of physical obstructions and signal interference. If the construction project is small, you may get away with installing signal extenders to ensure wireless coverage in ‘dead spot’ areas. A practical alternative would be to create a mesh network.
Connectivity through a mesh network
Mesh networks have certain advantages over hub-and-spoke style networks. Each access point acts as a node in a decentralised web. Instead of all traffic being routed through the hub at the site office/trailer, data can bypass the ‘base station’ and instead travel directly between two nodes on the network.
While this wouldn’t have a noticeable effect for someone sending an email from the fourth floor of an unfinished building, it could provide a significant advantage when aggregating and organising data from sensors scattered across a construction site.
A bonus is that each access point does not need to be kept within line-of-sight or within range of the hub. If one access point on the network has a signal, connectivity can be redistributed across the rest of the network.
If a node on the network goes go down, or congestion occurs on a part of the network, traffic can be routed along an alternative path around the problem. Optimum connectivity is therefore retained for other users.