Hard Times, Smart Investments

Smart city concept

The ongoing pandemic has been just one of the drivers for smarter, safer and more digitally integrated cities. But smart cities, like bricks and mortar cities, need foundations and investment.

The enabling environment for smart city development is offered by connectivity. However, without interoperability of a plethora of systems and devices, this could have limited benefits. The work of Real Wireless in some of the many smart city-related projects now being undertaken aims to address both enablers and potential hurdles such as these.

Most governments, and many municipalities, are coming to recognise that ubiquitous cellular and/or Wi-Fi coverage has significant socio-economic benefits. We have already seen notable regulatory shifts in both Europe and the US to make it easier to densify networks in urban environments and improve coverage in rural areas. And while such changes have taken many years to approach fruition, the pandemic has shown that both states and service providers can move fast and effectively when the socio-economic drivers are sufficiently powerful.

For example, the FCC’s Keep America Connected initiative (which ended in June) made spectrum available to improve coverage and capacity during the pandemic; China has expanded its 5G health programme in both scope and rollout; carriers in Malaysia pledged back in April to increase network densification investment and 5G buildout to support economic recovery. The challenge now is to turn emergency responses into long-term investment strategies.

There’s certainly an argument that the effective interconnection of digital systems doesn’t just improve lives but also saves them, and that this – along with their effect on efficiencies and costs – makes the development of smart cities even more desirable. However, the interoperability of devices, systems, networks, protocols and applications, remains a huge barrier.

For example, how many lives could have been saved by the global availability and take-up of a universal track-and-trace app at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak? And the fragmentation evident in track-and-trace applications (and associated data storage and privacy protocols) is amplified exponentially when we consider the lack of standardisation in sensors and other IoT devices, along with the challenges associated with operating such devices across different types of network.

As you would expect, Real Wireless is working on a number of smart city-related projects, some focussed on the detailed practicality of barrier-busting and operational deployment now, and some through our research and innovation programme, where we work in an ecosystem of suppliers and users shaping next-generation capabilities.

One example is the EU’s 5G-TOURS initiative, which is deploying full end-to-end 5G trials of 13 representative smart-city use cases across three cities. Our role in the project is to assess the socio-economic benefit of areas such as transport, healthcare, airport operations and tourism and determine how sustainable business models emerge from the deployment of infrastructure and services. This builds on our existing assessments of the benefits of smart city services in both central London and Hamburg under the 5G-NORMA and 5G-MoNArch projects respectively.

The business case for mobile service providers to deliver smart city services lacks commercial incentives due to the socio-economic nature of benefits and lack of willingness to pay on the part of many public authorities.  An alternative strategy to the “market mechanisms” approach to wireless connectivity in cities is clearly needed. We shape the concept of a city ‘digital services platform’ that enables operational use cases for health, tourism and transport workers but also supports services for consumers. This idea is to generate enough “anchor tenants” in a city environment to make the deployment of shared connectivity infrastructure viable and attractive.

We’re also supporting the Liverpool 5G initiative that is directed by the health and social care sector. With ownership of the benefits and the services, the initiative shapes the infrastructure, service and device approaches, but the economics and processes of the health workers are also a major focus, while the needs of patients remain the main priority.

This is as it should be. The democratisation and opening of communications systems will enable cities and public services to get what they need – and not what the members of the supply chain think they want. This is the path to sustainable adoption beyond the current Covid-19 crisis. It’s also the path to a city that is resilient to future challenges – be those viruses or other events.