Undoubtedly, this is one of the most fascinating times to be working in the wireless industry. The Internet of Things (IoT), and the services enabled by it, promise to fundamentally change how we go about our daily lives and will change the basic economics of many of today’s businesses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of IoT-enabled smart cities services – ranging from transportation to environmental management. But for municipalities to fully realize their smart city ambitions in a cost-effective and logistically sound way, they need to have a cost efficient wireless infrastructure is deployed – a challenge that requires municipalities to rethink their own wireless network regulatory requirements.
Over the next 20 years U.S. cities are expected to invest nearly $41 trillion to upgrade their infrastructure so they can become “smarter” by way of connected, or IoT, devices. Just last year the federal government launched the “Smart Cities Initiative,” providing more than $240 million in funding to cities working to deploy smart city technology and services.
Becoming a smart city is very appealing to both small and large municipalities. They see an abundance of opportunities, everything from streamling city operations like trash collection and making real-time operational decisions such as traffic management on demand when traffic is jammed to providing citizens and visitors with a better city experience. Most important is how IoT can drive significant cost out of city services by helping cities become much more efficient. However, major telecom companies are expected to post conservative wireless infrastructure investment numbers for 2017, following a slower 2016 compared to the LTE-inspired investments for the years prior. This means cities will need alternative options for building out the wireless infrastructure necessary for smart city services. Once such alternative is low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN), a network dedicated to IoT. Due to minimal energy consumption and the ability to scale connectivity to millions of connected objects in a cost-efficient manner, LPWAN should be the headlining connectivity for municipalities.
While LPWAN addresses the challenge cities face with IoT connectivity, its network deployment is often crippled by the very municipalities it seeks to serve. Despite having a much smaller physical footprint than normal cellular sites, as well as requiring much less extensive ongoing maintenance services and minimal power, LPWAN providers are required to adhere to the same regulatory compliance, jurisdictional installation requirements, and permitting as cellular providers. That means some LPWAN providers trying to expand their networks in cities where demand for IoT-enabled services is high are financially forced to deploy elseswhere in order to keep their promise of of low cost.
From our own experience with recent U.S. deployments, these challenges are not just trivial matters for LPWAN providers. In one Illinois county, we were required to post a substancially high cost removal bond for each site, for no other reason than “that’s the way they’ve always done things.” That’s just one example of a long list of regulatory “red tape” challenges. In one California city the combination of permit application and site-study fees ended up costing more than construction of a single site. These regulatory measures are applied whether a provider is deploying $250,000 or $2,000 worth of equipment, with zero thought given to proportionality. This isn’t to say permits and site evaluation are bad policies to have on the books, but one of the key benefits of LPWAN deployments is lower-investment costs leads to lower-operational costs. Without LPWAN, cities are looking at much higher costs for their smart city services through means of traditional connectivity service providers.
As with many innovative technologies, the one size fits all regulatory approach at the local level needs to be readdressed if cities want to be successful in their smart city ambitions. Much as ride-sharing services have forced municipalities to re-evaluate how they regulate transportation services, so too will they need to evolve in how they treat small- and large-cell site deployments. Existing rules in some places are like trying to regulate automobiles with the same rules that you had for horses!
Fortunately, there are already a couple promising examples of U.S. metropolitan areas embracing LPWAN. Atlanta recently received attention for the work of its smart city project team, SmartATL. Working with IoT-technology vendors and LPWAN infrastructure providers, Atlanta is on track to achieve its smart city goals and become the tech-hub of the South. The initiative is still young, and SmartATL admits there’s more learning to be done – but already they’ve been successful in deploying sensors and relevant infrastructure to support environmental management, lighting, and traffic management initiatives. The practical approach in Atlanta reminds us of why it is fourth in the nation in hosting Fortune 500 companies.
Tech-savvy San Francisco is another fitting example of a city that understands the necessity of approaching IoT-infrastructure regulations differently from high-powered cellular. In our experience with the city, we accelerated our network roll-out by deploying our access points on top of several libraries throughout the city with a modified process. These permissions were still obtained from the city, but they understood that the equipment we were asking permissions for was nowhere near the same as if we had been proposing a new high-powered cell site in the city. Mutual trust and a collaborative spirit helped both parties achieve their goals- something we hope to see more as us and other LPWAN providers continue rolling out deployments across the country.
This isn’t just another case of industry actors arguing for broad deregulation because our eyes are filled with dollar signs. While the market opportunity for LPWAN providers is promising, above all else what we’re talking about here is whether cities want to continue stepping on their own feet, or if they want to learn how to walk straight into the future of urban living. Adjusting for the reality that LPWAN is critical to making smart cities a reality.
Allen Proithis is North American President of Sigfox, a LPWA networking company.
Filed Under: Infrastructure, IoT • IIoT • internet of things • Industry 4.0