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How technology is helping multifamily communities adapt to the new normal
January 8, 2021
By Benjamin Paltiel
Multifamily communities are having their technological readiness put to the test. With residents homebound, owners are now on the hook to provide connectivity and support to adults working from home, children learning remotely and tenants who are streaming, messaging and gaming around the clock.
Plus, many experts think devices like infrared temperature scanners and occupancy sensors are going to be key to the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, adding to buildings’ digital burden. Multifamily owners are juggling more technological needs than ever before.
To learn more about the hurdles multifamily owners are facing, Bisnow sat down with Daniel O’Connell, a vice president at CenturyLink’s Connected Communities initiative, which provides customized fiber network solutions for residential properties across the country. Read on to hear O’Connell’s thoughts on the evolving role of connectivity in the multifamily world.
Bisnow: How do you think the role of technology has changed for multifamily communities in the face of the coronavirus pandemic?
O’Connell: Developers have talked about live-work-play for a long time and designed properties with that sort of lifestyle in mind. They’ve centered that approach around reliable broadband service, which is responsible for giving residents access to entertainment and managing wellness and other amenities.
Now owners of multifamily communities are relying even more on technology since residents are looking for more of a self-service experience. Components of running a multifamily community during a pandemic, like keyless entry and virtual tours, require a deeper technological backbone for support. Understanding how residents use the space, from tracking how many people are in the fitness center, or on the pool deck at any one time, to figuring out when to schedule cleaning and sanitizing services, all of that requires information that can be generated by sensors that run on digital networks. Enabling that flow of information is going to be more critical than ever in the era of social distancing.
Bisnow: Do you foresee multifamily owners integrating new designs or technology solutions given that emphasis on self-sufficiency?
O’Connell: It’s not about new solutions so much as adapting existing solutions. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more developers integrating workspace into their common areas. Now, not only are those spaces more necessary with residents working from home, but they also have to be more private to accommodate social distancing. That means having ubiquitous WiFi coverage that seamlessly follows residents from one area to the next. It also might be about integrating smart devices into each unit, bringing together lighting controls and speakers to improve the living experience.
Since buildings are being used more intensively, owners also have to rely on building-wide connected devices that help measure energy utilization, water metering, HVAC usage and self-diagnosing mechanical systems that can tell you when they’re under too much stress.
Bisnow: It seems like there are two tracks here for smart technologies: creating a better tenant experience and reducing operational costs.
O’Connell: Those “tracks” are really two sides of the same coin. As an owner, the more information I have about my building — understanding needs and usage habits, knowing the ecosystem — the better experience I can provide my residents and the more efficiently I can manage my building.
Some of the experience-focused improvements are actually opportunities for revenue generation. I might be able to charge a premium for some of the smart systems I have in my building. This is an uncertain time, and some multifamily owners are concerned about a reduction in occupancy rates because of COVID-19, so those dollars are more important now than ever.
Bisnow: What sort of demands are multifamily owners facing now from their residents?
O’Connell: In the last couple of months, we’ve seen a significant increase of high-speed internet service orders. People who already had service from CenturyLink are adding a second line or boosting their speed, because with their kids learning from home, they might need a separate band for work activity. Connectivity is a basic need people have — they want solid, predictable consistent connectivity for work, education, wellness, entertainment, gaming, and dozens of other purposes.
We’re working to be good partners to solve the challenges in our communities, especially in the older properties where the infrastructure isn’t always as strong. One owner in particular comes to mind. They have several properties in the Southwest with bulk service from CenturyLink. When the shutdown happened, the owner found demand was outpacing the existing network bandwidth. They came to us for a solution; we doubled the speed to those properties and waived any additional fees for the upgrades. We chose to do that because we believe in the partnership we have with this owner.
Bisnow: The pandemic is causing so many rapid shifts in technology and society. How important is it to have a network that can evolve in response?
O’Connell: Two of the teams that I oversee at CenturyLink are sales engineering and sales support, and they go hand in hand. So while engineering is designing and deploying solutions, the support team is there to monitor networks and ensure success. Other companies might have a single representative overseeing hundreds of properties, but we cap our reps at about 45 or 50 so that they can interact with every owner on a weekly or biweekly basis. In the current environment, there are more questions than ever, and our reps are there to be the front line in answering those questions, supporting the leasing and property management staff.
Bisnow: Where do you think the future of connectivity is for multifamily developments?
O’Connell: The good news is that developers have caught on to the importance of technology. At least in CenturyLink Connected Communities' case, we are seeing 40% year-over-year growth as more developers listen to their residents and realize they want great internet from the moment they walk in the door, without having to schedule an appointment or wait for a hookup.
I think where we’re heading is toward unifying all the connected applications across multifamily properties. Right now, a brand-new multifamily building might have three completely different networks in the same building. Maybe they have CenturyLink inside the units, hallways and common spaces, a different provider for the administrative networks and a third to run smart devices and IoT capabilities. Or maybe there’s a separate provider for units that are operating short-term rentals. I think we’re going to see CenturyLink as the aggregator for that entire ecosystem: a host of different secure networks running on the same equipment, with one interface and one bill.