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Why the “Untrendy” Wired Device is Sometimes Better than Wireless

The permeation of mobility and flexibility is evident everywhere. People want more choices and less rigidity.

It’s how everybody is running both their work lives and their home lives, and construction executives need to consider this when working with clients to select and implement new technology in their buildings. They should advise their clients when it’s smart to follow these trends and when it’s not.

Wireless technology has done much to bring more mobility and flexibility, and it’s putting devices on the Internet that were never considered possible before. The world has moved quickly beyond mobile phones and laptops, ushering in an era of the Internet of Things (IoT). In the home, there are refrigerators, toothbrushes and even hair brushes that can be on the network. In the office, cameras, thermostats and light fixtures are networked. The world is data-driven and IoT is providing that data. And while IoT is trending, so are valid concerns that more networked devices means more security vulnerabilities in the network.

Construction executives need to conduct a risk assessment of what will benefit more from being wireless versus wired. Understand which devices can access the internet (or be attacked by the internet) and which devices can remain separate and hence more secure. Essentially, the more devices that are on the internet, the more vulnerable the network is to hackers. To minimize these vulnerabilities, be conservative about which devices are Internet-enabled. Take a step back with a pragmatic eye and consider what the client’s actual business needs are, who will be involved and why.

What should and shouldn’t be wireless?

Wireless is inherently vulnerable. It can be accessed clandestinely by people outside the building. Although wireless is a significant risk, it comes with huge benefits. Wireless should be reserved for two categories of devices:

  • things that are mobile; and
  • things that can’t easily be reached by wires.

Things that are mobile are obvious: phones, laptops and tablets. This short list contains devices that are very smart, with sophisticated operating systems and built-in security. Keep this in mind when making recommendations on other areas like thermostats and lighting controls. As a rule, devices that are relatively safe accessing the internet are those running high power operating systems and security, such as Android, Apple iOS, Windows and Linux. Even robots are OK.

The category of things that can’t easily be reached by wires is somewhat more nebulous, such as lighting. Wireless makes sense for retrofits, but not for new construction or major TI. When retrofitting lighting controls in an old building, it might be cost-prohibitive to run networking cable to all the places where a smart switch or sensor is needed. If, on the other hand, lighting controls are being installed into new construction or a major tenant improvement (TI), then new wires are as easy to run as power. With some control products, the power and control wires can even be installed simultaneously in the same flexible conduit.

Things that are worth the wireless risk in a retrofit situation include:

  • security cameras;
  • thermostats;
  • occupancy sensors;
  • photo sensors;
  • lighting control; and
  • outlet control.

In older buildings, these devices were unknown and therefore not considered, but can be cost effectively (but not necessarily easily) added when done wirelessly. However, in new construction, it’s recommended to hard-wire these things.

Lastly, wireless is not any easier or faster than wired. In fact, it’s usually more complicated. Pairing and security are added steps that can usually be avoided with a wired solution. Think about hooking up a game console. Assuming the service provider conveniently dropped the router next to the TV, all that’s needed is to plug in a network cable and it’s done. If the router is in a different room, the setup becomes more complicated, requiring digging into menus and typing in the SSID and password. Now imagine doing that for every light fixture in a 100,000-square foot building.

What should be internet-enabled and what should not?

Accessing the internet sounds great. It provides wireless access and control to a building from a mobile device. It allows owners to monitor their buildings’ efficiency and security and fix things remotely. There are numerous benefits to internet access, but that doesn’t mean every node on a system should be on the internet. It’s important to limit the number of things in a system that have access. Consider the HVAC or lighting system as one thing rather than a collection of many things, therefore needing just one access point to the internet.

Keep in mind that any device that can access the internet can also be accessed (or attacked) from the internet and turned into a hacker’s weapon to attack websites. Hackers bring down websites through Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, where computers or other internet devices are turned into DoS bots and directed to ping a website repeatedly until it crashes. If there’s a relatively “dumb” open security device (such as a thermostat) that can reach the internet, then that thermostat and every other thermostat can be turned into a DoS platform.

Think ahead. Choose systems that have good security, sophisticated operating system protections and that can limit the number of points accessing the network. Peace of mind can be achieved knowing that an army of internet hacker bots are not scattered throughout the client’s infrastructure.

Rules for the security enthusiast

A building doesn’t need to be built like a digital Fort Knox, but lessons can be learned from security fanatics like the U.S. Government. The government has several buildings where wireless and outside internet access are prohibited. This is serious security freak level planning. Though unrealistic for commercial, these lessons can be softened and turned into infrastructure rules for the security enthusiast:

  • wireless should be reserved for things that move every week;
  • infrastructure can be wirelessly retrofitted, but should be wired on new construction;
  • it’s the IoT, not the IoET (Internet of Everything); and
  • buildings should be limited to the IoST (Internet of Smart Things).
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