5 Network Considerations Before Moving Forward with Smart Apartments

May 21, 2019 | Security, Smart Home/Apartment

Charlie Hill and Yuzuka Akasaka

7 minute read

There is a rapidly growing number of companies that claim to provide Smart Apartment solutions at MultiFaily tech conferences in the past couple of years. While most of these solutions are slight tweaks of the others, the core differentiation between these Smart Apartment solutions is the method of providing a network and connectivity. The primary methods of establishing a wireless network in Smart Apartments are a) unit-based connectivity or b) a building-wide network infrastructure.

What’s the difference between unit-based connectivity and building-wide network infrastructure?

Unit-based connectivity

A wireless network enables smart devices to connect and communicate back to a cloud platform. For example, a WiFi router/access-point or Z-Wave/Zigbee “hub” is a standard unit-based connectivity solution in a typical smart home.

What does this look like for MultiFamily and Student Housing?

Most Smart Apartment vendors deploy a Z-Wave hub for each apartment unit. With this unit-based network style, each Z-Wave hub that provides wireless connectivity is usually physically located in the unit. The hub relies on an Internet Service Provider (ISP) connection inside of the unit and/or a cellular modem connection.

Building-wide network infrastructure

With a building-wide network installation, there are typically multiple WiFi access-points or hubs (for Z-Wave, Zigbee, etc.) mounted outside of the apartment units that communicate through a professionally installed infrastructure. A property-provided ISP connection enables smart-device connectivity across the entire building (as opposed to an ISP connection in the unit that is owned by the Resident). The diagram below shows how a network installation deploys connectivity for MultiFamily housing. 

The specific differences between these two methods can be difficult to understand, so they are broken down into five main considerations: 1) facility capabilities, 2) Resident connectivity, 3) cost, 4) longer-term value, and 5) security.

1. Facility capabilities

Generally with a hub-per-unit installation, if the Property Manager needs to adjust common area and vacant unit temperatures, lighting, etc, they must physically enter each area. If the hub is in the unit, how is the network enabling devices outside of the unit, for example in common areas or amenity spaces? Though it is possible that some vendors have solutions to handle this, it is not the norm.

Furthermore, with a hub-per-unit solution, the Resident is typically responsible for their own ISP modem. In that case, when the Resident moves out, how can the Property Manager enable vacant-unit control? Some providers offer this through cellular backup modems. Ask your solutions provider if there are any additional cell subscription costs and consider the cell modem’s reliability, especially in low-cell connectivity areas of the property.

A building-wide network infrastructure enables building-wide connectivity. This includes units, common areas, amenity areas, leasing office, and beyond. The Property Manager can easily access device control and automation capabilities for common area and vacant unit temperature, lighting, leak detection, etc. This increases energy efficiency and net operating income (NOI).

2. Cost

A unit-based connectivity method with installing a hub for every unit in the building can cost approximately $70 to $160 per hub per unit.

On the other hand, STRATIS networks (building-wide network infrastructure) deploy fewer hubs and access-points, as each hub/access-point covers multiple units. However, unlike hub-per-unit deployments, the building-wide network installations include costs for cabling, network switches and firewalls, and professional installation.

Therefore, the two network deployment styles are typically the same overall expense. However, the building-wide network installation increases the longer-term value of the building, as explained in the following section.

3. Longer-term value

The in-unit connectivity method is usually dependent on the Resident’s ISP connection (e.g. a cable modem); therefore, this solution is not truly a permanent network infrastructure.

Implementing Smart Building technology is an investment by developers and building owners, and this is recognized in the building’s valuation. STRATIS’ professionally installed and industry-proven network infrastructure future-proofs the building, and this facility-wide WiFi, Z-Wave, and/or Zigbee network increases the value of a building for its lifetime. Any and all smart devices will have guaranteed connectivity. Furthermore, when owners purchase this style of network, it can often be treated as an upfront expenditure, and when the building is sold, the technology value can increase the sell-price.

4. Resident connectivity

A hub-per-unit deployment provides connectivity to occupied-unit devices, but it does not typically enable WiFi connectivity for Residents in the building.

STRATIS building-wide networks, when WiFi is included, enable a 10mbps common-area connectivity for WiFi calling, emails, app usage, etc. If requested for new developments, this speed can be increased, as STRATIS networks utilize Cat6 (high-speed) infrastructure. Since these high-speed lines will last the lifetime of the unit and building, this is a sustainable future-proofing option. For Residents, this takes out the hassle of determining WiFi options.

5. Security

A hub-per-unit installation is based upon the network method you would typically see in a single family home. It makes sense that vendors are thinking in this manner, as most devices that connect with those hubs are made for the single family market. This has a few serious implications:

  • Residents or other people who have access to the unit could (accidentally or intentionally) tamper with the hub. Many single-family hubs have an external factory reset capability, which could reset the network and disconnect all connected devices. Furthermore, physical access to the hub removes basic security hurdles, making it that much easier for bad actors to successfully penetrate the network.
  • Hubs dependent on the Resident’s ISP connection (i.e. cable modem) are not usually professionally managed. Furthermore, these networks will very rarely have the Intrusion Prevention/Detection of a professionally installed network. If an external bad actor attacks that Resident network, the hub and its connected devices are the next step in the chain and are at serious risk.
  • Going back to cellular backup capabilities discussed earlier, many solutions providers have utilized cell modems manufactured by companies that have had cybersecurity issues. In 2018, U.S. intelligence chiefs, including those of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Director of National Intelligence, cautioned against Americans using products from some of these manufacturers.

A professionally-installed building-wide network infrastructure resolves these issues. By implementing Security Gateways (aka “Firewall”), Intrusion Prevention, and Intrusion Detection, the network equipment is only accessible by vetted employees and contractors. Also, STRATIS networks are monitored for security and connectivity from a centralized portal. If a gateway (AKA “hub”) or WiFi access-point falls off the network or is tampered with, the network management is immediately alerted.

To learn more about secure networking and IoT in general, here is an article by Lesley Carhart, a premiere and trusted cybersecurity specialist.

MultiFamily and Student Housing are unique markets that require unique solutions. STRATIS provides secure and cost-effective facility-wide IoT solutions that last a lifetime and significantly upgrade the quality of the building.

With these five considerations, a network infrastructure is an investment in a facility-wide approach that will last a building’s lifetime. To learn more about how STRATIS can enable this more sustainable, secure, and convenient option, contact us today.

About STRATIS

STRATIS is an Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing Company in America” and an Entrepreneur 360 “Best Company in America.” STRATIS enables smart apartments and intelligent buildings and is the only platform of its kind built for the complexities of multifamily and student housing. Since launch, STRATIS has installed in 300,000 apartments across the U.S. and more than 15,000 internationally. To get more information visit: STRATISIoT.com.