The wireless industry is moving inexorably toward 5G technology as the next wave of wireless broadband connectivity. This trend coincides with an increasing focus on the part of municipal authorities, urban planners and technology vendors of all kinds to make cities smarter. Where do these trends intersect? While there are as many smart city strategies as there are organizations to propose them, one thing is clear — smart cities will depend on ubiquitous broadband connectivity to support a range of critical services.
Cities currently face a variety of significant challenges including enhancing safety, increasing energy efficiency, improving air quality, making transportation more efficient and boosting overall quality of life for residents and visitors alike. The impetus for making cities smarter is driven by the need to address these concerns, and communications networks will be a key tool in the city planner’s toolbox.
Smart city services will demand an advanced digital service infrastructure that can deliver enormous data capacity — for government departments, residents and businesses — which can be accessed from anywhere at any time. From a practical standpoint, this means that a substantial portion of this infrastructure needs to be wireless. However, existing mobile networks will soon be insufficient — in terms of data capacity and throughput — to support the increased numbers of users, devices, applications and associated data requirements anticipated in most smart city scenarios. This will create bottlenecks that can threaten the realization of municipalities’ smart city aspirations.
The natural answer to this challenge is 5G technology, which promises to deliver substantial increases in data speeds and capacity, as well as equally critical reductions in latency. To deliver on this promise, however, 5G needs to take advantage of higher radio frequencies, which cover a smaller geographic footprint due to the limited propagation of the radio signals, yet can support much higher data rates. As a result, 5G networks will require dense networks of antennas — in the form of small cells — packed together much more closely than is typical with today’s macro networks.
In the smart city context, this raises some important questions; perhaps most notably, “Where will we put all those radios?” While people clearly appreciate having access to high-speed broadband service wherever they are, they are generally less excited by the idea of having cell sites all around them. As a result, city governments, technology vendors and partners from a range of industries are searching for elegant solutions to this challenge, and many have already embarked on 5G network trials to explore the possibilities in real-world environments.
One of the more promising approaches currently being explored is the integration of 5G antennas into existing elements of the city scape; most notably in street furniture (bus stop shelters, for instance) and in highly distributed infrastructure such as light poles, which are nearly ubiquitous in urban environments. An added benefit to the latter is that street lights are typically supported by other needed infrastructure, such as the local power grid, which offers some obvious logistical advantages.
Of course, retro-fitting existing light poles to support 5G radio access won’t be practical in most instances. Instead, city planners can integrate the requirements for 5G networking into the planning process for broader modernization or beautification efforts in public spaces. In fact, while clearly a critical piece of the puzzle, 5G connectivity is just one element of many that city officials need to consider as they embark on their smart city initiatives. For instance, in addition to wireless networks, they will also be looking to deploy sensors to support weather monitoring and traffic management, or cameras to support security applications. Why not integrate these technologies into a single, easy to replicate, easy to deploy form-factor? There are clear benefits to this approach for cities, enabling them to make the most of their limited “real estate.”
In preparation of 5G technology’s introduction, many cities and their commercial partners have initiated trial programs to work through many of the challenges they will face with widespread commercial deployments. For instance, the integration of 5G and smart city infrastructure presents some novel design challenges. What needs to be done, from a design standpoint, to support the various technologies in a quite limited space? How can we pack as much functionality as possible into each unit in the most cost-effective manner? What kind of materials need to be used so that radio signals are not impeded, and can support the high-speed connections required?
As important as these logistical answers, the systems need to be attractive as well (or better yet invisible) if they are to be accepted by the public — particularly given the volumes in which they will be deployed. They also need to be durable, continuing to function properly over a long period of time across a range of weather conditions. Lastly, they need to be resistant to tampering, vandalism or theft, which are unfortunately common challenges in many urban areas. These questions become quite important when these devices are literally all around us.
Fortunately, these questions are being answered through trials and pilot projects, many of which involve companies and organizations that haven’t previously had a major role in the deployment of mobile networks. Network equipment vendors and communications service providers are partnering with municipal authorities, industrial designers, universities and research institutions, electronic component manufacturers and more on the development of smart light poles and other street-level fixtures that incorporate miniaturized 5G antennas and base stations, a variety of sensors, screens to support information displays and advertising — all coupled with energy-efficient smart LED lighting.
In addition to addressing technical challenges, these projects also offer the opportunity to develop best practices in areas such as network planning, urban design, cost optimization, business model development and strategies to share the cost of deploying and managing the network. They also provide an opportunity for the various potential stakeholders in these projects to explore their respective roles in advance of making broader commitments, or investments.
Clearly, the historical approach of installing cell towers to support mobile broadband across large geographic areas will not address the deployment needs of the 5G era; particularly in densely populated areas with substantial demand in terms of the number of users and applications. The emergence of 5G will necessarily break down any barriers between network planning and urban planning. Given the acceleration in commercialization of 5G we are seeing in the market, integrated 5G/smart city planning cannot begin too soon.
Thorsten is vice president, Advanced Mobile Networks Solutions (AMS) at Nokia which creates end-to-end solutions within the merging telco and IT industry. A key focus of his efforts is around the delivering of mobile broadband networks for public safety applications.
Thorsten has deep expertise in the radio and core domains of mobile broadband. In his earlier roles as Head of Portfolio & Product Management, he led the global SW and HW portfolio across the full Nokia Networks product portfolio. Prior to this he has been heading Nokia’s LTE Product Management, wherein he initiated the introduction and realization of Long Term Evolution (LTE) in the market.
Filed Under: Infrastructure, Wireless