“Give something to get something”

Smart city is no longer just a topic about the future. Many ‘smart’ / digital services are already operational today, ranging from public transport logistics, parking surveillance, traffic management, waste control, etc. They are, however, mostly deployed on top of existing communication backbone (mobile and fixed networks), built primarily for serving residential and B2B legacy communication needs.

Going forward, as cities are introducing more connected smart city applications, such as surveillance cameras, citizen safety guidance, lighting, traffic improvements, pollution and weather monitoring, etc., a smart city will require much denser, better coverage and higher capacity mobile networks. This means ubiquitous 4G and also high capacity 5G coverage, which can support a growing number of applications and millions of sensing devices.

On the other hand, given the restrictions and cost of building new sites in the city and the limited revenue upside from providing just the connectivity, operators are looking for a stronger incentive to invest heavily in more advanced and denser network infrastructure in the cities, without which those futuristic use cases would remain, futuristic.

One very logical solution to this dilemma is to start a collaboration between the two main stakeholders in a smart city, i.e. the cellular operators and the local public authorities, to facilitate the investment in the network infrastructure required for a truly smart city. This can be achieved by, for example, allowing the operators to access and deploy the latest network equipment on top of public infrastructures such as utility poles and lamp posts or even [under] manholes at reduced site rental cost, and thereby providing both logistical support and financial incentives for the operators to build an otherwise financially questionable network densification. Beyond that, public authorities can also work with private venue owners to ensure extended networks can be supplied across the city. Such state-of-the-art digital infrastructure deployed by the operators would then in turn be used to enable more advanced, more capacity hungry, latency critical smart city applications for reducing energy consumption, improving traffic efficiency and so on, while at the same time improve “basic” cellular services for the operators’ regular users.

It’s not that such low hanging fruit has gone entirely unnoticed. US and parts of Asia have already shown a way for 5G deployment, and to no surprise the most advanced smart city collaborations between telecom operators and public authorities can also be found in these regions. For instance, Taiwanese Chunghwa Telecom signed an agreement with the Taipei city for the deployment of smart city applications in Taiwan’s capital. The city will allow the telco to install base stations and various types of smart sensors using the city’s existing streetlights and traffic signals. In return this infrastructure will also be used for smart streetlights, smart city innovative apps experiments and trials, as well as 5G application demos and trials.

Similar collaborations are also mushrooming in U.S. cities such as San José and Knoxville, where telcos like AT&T are leveraging the partnerships to accelerate the rollout of smallcells, laying down the foundation for 5G while at the same time enabling more digital services for smart city and public safety.

Inspired by the successful examples from Asia and US, European operators and city authorities are also looking into this direction and initiate similar collaborations (Vodafone’s inventive approach with manholes in Newburuy and old phone booths in Edinburg has set a good example here). The scope of such collaboration could also expand to include more private sector players like energy companies, or transport service providers to form a true PPP with a broader impact. Joint approaches along those ways to build up the smart city (and 5G) infrastructures will not only be beneficial for our region but may even prove to be critical in order to seriously upgrade Europe to the 5G era.

And don’t forget there are only so many lamp posts (or manholes) on the high street, so the race is on!


Lei is Senior Manager and Head of Technology at Northstream