The wireless world that technology experts have predicted for years is finally emerging. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research group In-Stat/MDR estimates that residential shipments of wireless routers and access points in the United States jumped to 5.3 million last year--up from 2 million in 2002--and will grow to 6.8 million by 2006.
So where do builders fit into all this technology growth?
The short answer: Most don't ... yet. The vast majority of wireless devices are sold through retail stores, and few builders offer wireless access in the communities they build. For now, most of the wireless projects under way are being led by large developers who set technology guidelines for builders to follow.
We looked at three projects that offer wireless networks to new-home owners. Two of the projects, Stapleton, at the site of the old Stapleton Airport in Denver, and Playa Vista, in Los Angeles, are large urban infill projects led by developers. The other comes from Village Homes in Littleton, Colo., which started offering homeowners Internet access over a wireless network last spring.
Each project features different technology. Stapleton deployed dual wireless transmitters on the roofs of 10 test homes--one transmitter connects to the wireless Internet service provider, the other to a wireless roaming service; Playa Vista uses wireless modem/routers; and Village Homes is using a wireless broadband system.
It's clear that demand for wireless networks will grow as Generation Y makes its way into the housing market in the next 10 years. So it's time for builders to think about how they can best integrate wireless into their technology offerings. Think of these case studies as a first look into the wireless communities that many of you will build in the years ahead.
The managers and technology planners for the $4 billion Stapleton project at the 7.5-square-mile Stapleton Airport site in Denver looked 10 to 20 years into the future and saw wireless.
"We looked at trends in mobile communications, with cell phones expanding and the 18- to 25-year-old segment using wireless phones as opposed to land lines, and it just made sense to think in terms of building a wireless community," says Don Knasel, CEO of PDActive of Boulder, Colo., the company that wrote the wireless portion of the technology plan for Forest City Stapleton, the project's developer.
Knasel says Forest City Stapleton is deploying wireless in phases. Step one was to invest about $25,000 to $30,000 to install wireless access points at the control tower in the old airport. The access points deliver wireless data access to the trailers for the crews building roads and sewers, and for some of the early builders and contractors.
"It's very expensive to run temporary lines for voice and data on all the different construction sites," says Knasel. "Now that the wireless infrastructure is in, all the builders have to do is adjust the antenna at the top of the trailer when they change sites," he says.
"The workers can use the wireless [infrastructure] for telephone service, as well as for data services, an Internet connection, and to send faxes," adds Knasel. "Forest City Stapleton saved $100,000 on the first three trailers alone."
The next step in Forest City Stapleton's phased approach was to test wireless technology at 10 residences and deploy wireless hotspots at the community center and parks throughout the development. A wireless hotspot is a public place with a wireless access point that lets users with wireless laptops and PDAs access their devices. Typically, wireless hotspots are found at Internet cafes, airports, and large shopping centers. Stapleton also plans to evaluate this technology at the 10 test residences.
Knasel says technicians will install dual wireless transmitters from wireless gear maker Proxim Corp. on top of each test house--one transmitter will connect to wireless Internet service provider Milestone Networks, the other will connect to hotspot provider Wise Technologies for roaming service throughout the house and the surrounding neighborhood. Homeowners running wireless equipment at the test sites will receive bandwidth of 512 kilobits per second for high-speed Internet access. Knasel says some of Stapleton's builders will start offering this technology as a service this month.
"We don't have to wait for the cable company to dig the cable or for the phone company to put in a central office switch," says Knasel. "People can move into their homes and have wireless Internet access right away, especially homeowners who might have wireless cards built into their laptops. Also, builders can open their model homes and have these telecom services running well before the final infrastructure is put in."
John Rossi, information technology support specialist in the Denver area for Beazer Homes, which is starting off by building on 42 lots at Stapleton, says the new wireless technology gives his company a competitive edge.
"There's really no other network provider that's integrating technology in the homes in quite this way," says Rossi. "Plus, the pilot tests here will help us learn about the technology for our other divisions across the country."
Plans are also in the works to build a wireless campus for a technology high school within Stapleton that will open in fall 2004. The school is funded by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett-Packard.
Forest City Stapleton plans to build 12,000 to 15,000 homes and apartments over the next 15 years, with 10 million square feet of office space and 3 million of retail. There are 18 builders on the project, with entry-level condos starting at $140,000 and custom homes priced up to $1.1 million. As of early November 2003, about 600 homes were occupied.
For Playa Vista, the 1,087-acre urban infill project on Los Angeles' westside, the long delays, lawsuits, and environmental battles to save nearby Ballona Wetlands for two decades may have a silver lining. Now that about 1,200 of the 3,246 units in the first phase are built and occupied, Playa Vista is perfectly timed to become one of the country's first wireless communities.
For starters, every unit will have a structured wiring panel that comes with two RG 6 connections for cable access, two Category-5e wiring connections for home networking, and two multimode fiber links for future use as a network infrastructure in the event that fiber to the home becomes more affordable. Also standard is a combined cable modem/wireless router from Linksys for wireless home networking. The bandwidth for Internet access on the standard package is up to 2.2 megabits per second.
"Every home is networked, and when homeowners move in, they are wireless," says Derek Fraychineaud, Playa's director of residential land development and architect of the development's technology plan.
"Since the wireless router comes standard, all [homeowners] need to buy is a card for their PDA or notebook computer," says Fraychineaud. "The idea is to build a community in which every residence will have wireless, and there will be wireless access in the common areas and parks."
Fraychineaud says Playa Vista now has wireless hotspots at the Centerpointe Club, a 26,000-square-foot community center that houses the homeowners association, business center, and a fitness facility. Playa's master plan also calls for wireless hotspots in more than 40 parks.
Playa Vista is also preparing for when delivering Internet access over a wireless infrastructure becomes more feasible in the Los Angeles area. For now, Playa is running conduit from each condo building's central telecom room up to the roof. When the time comes, installers will put in wireless transmitters or antennas that will connect back to a carrier, wireless Internet service provider, or hotspot provider. "Rather than retrofitting, we're planning for the future," notes Fraychineaud.
Another feature unique to Playa Vista is that the community requires the builders involved to pay for the new homeowner to have two hours of technical service with a CompUSA technician.
"I like to call this 'the last 5 feet,'" says Fraychineaud. "Doing all the prewiring is all well and good, but too often, our customers don't know how to get the computer working or have no idea what the structured wiring panel does," says Fraychineaud. "The CompUSA technician explains what networking is, how wireless technology works, gets the customer's e-mail up and running, and sets up any of the other add-ons, like climate controls, security, and lighting."
Derek Baak, project manager for Los Angeles-based West Millennium Homes, which is building 121 condos in phase one, says that while the builder doesn't make much money prewiring the units with structured wiring, the margins the builder receives on the home technology CompUSA up-sells to the homeowner have been profitable. "As the builder, we get a percentage on the sale of technology," says Baak. "The buyers can work with CompUSA through our design center for upgrades."
Few in the home building business would deny that Village Homes in Littleton, Colo., is among the most tech-savvy builders in the industry.
Village Homes sustains consistent margins selling home technology with its TechTouch division and is also a wireless pacesetter with VillNet.com, the wireless Internet service the company launched last spring.
"It's part of our vision statement to be a digitally based company," says Scott Caschette, an information technology manager at Village Homes. "Our management knows that technology gives them an edge, and they have no fear of spending money on technology."
Village Homes' wireless push started a little more than three years ago, when the company used a wireless network for data communications to construction trailers and sales offices at its jobsites. But the company decided to look into alternatives after seeing that it took local carriers such as Qwest and Comcast several months to offer high-speed Internet access to new-home owners in the remote areas in which Village tended to build.
The solution was to deploy Motorola's Canopy wireless system on the roofs of new homes. The Canopy system is essentially a wireless router with an antenna that broadcasts to an antenna at the new town centers Village is building and then back to Mesa Networks, the wireless Internet service provider based in Frederick, Colo.
Village offers the VillNet service in 260 units at its Crofton Park community in Broomfield, Colo., and roughly 900 homes in the Village of Five Parks in Arvada, Colo. As of early November 2003, Crofton Park had about 20 users and Village of Five Parks about 40. Basic Internet service costs $44 per month, with a one-time $49 installation fee and a $325 fee for the equipment.
"We did focus groups and found that nearly 50 percent of our customers wanted Internet access as soon as they moved in," says Caschette. "Since providers can take from nine to 12 months to come into a new area, we needed something that would deliver Internet service faster. Now, our customers can have Internet service the day they move in."