Get Smart: The Role of Mobile Operators in Smart Cities

March 25, 2015 Rangu Salgame

The concept of the smart city is currently experiencing a major revival. In the past several months, India has announced plans to create 100 Smart Cities; China has committed $8B US in Smart City development and research firm IHS recently projected there will be at least 88 smart cities globally by 2025, up from 21 in 2013.

When I speak of a Smart City I am referring to a city that has deployed or is in the initial stages of deploying ICT (information and communications technology) solutions across multiple functions such as public safety (police and fire), transportation (bus, train  and road systems), utilities (power and water) and education (school systems).

I had the unique opportunity to witness the challenges facing the first generation of Smart City initiatives firsthand, in the mid-2000s. While at Cisco I led a team that worked closely with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to develop the strategy and operating model for 3 Smart Economic Cities to be built in that country — the first of their kind in the world.

The recent wave of Smart City interest is in large part driven by the Internet of Everything, which is simultaneously creating and being enabled by advances in cloud technology, security, mobile connectivity and M2M. In brief, the challenge of connecting machine to machine is a matter of technological flexibility, accessibility in remote areas, and dependency upon one mobile network operator.  As new mobile generation devices fitted with high quality sensors and cameras emerge, their accessibility increases and their reach proliferates. Cities have a greater opportunity to connect, collect and analyze data for logistical improvements. We see the impact in areas such as traffic tracking to reduce gridlock, as well as in aspirational changes such as increasing citizen participation.

My hypothesis is that Mobile operators are very well placed to play a significant role in smart city enablement.

The first wave of momentum around Smart Cities was plagued by challenges in planning, management, cost and complexity. I’d argue that a more focused effort around proper deployment of wireless connectivity will be vital to networking a city quickly and easily.

Connectivity will be especially vital because one of the most important components in Smart Cities is interaction. Connectivity will link elements, such as smart buildings and public spaces, together and is akin to the human circulatory system. In order for a city to be healthy, data has to flow freely and to the right areas so it can be properly processed, analyzed and acted upon. Ensuring the circulation of data to key organs within the Smart City will be the job of carriers and mobile operators.

To encourage interaction and communication, a combination of wireless connectivity technologies should be used. Going with only one type of technology could be unnecessarily costly and potentially limit interaction. A mix of wireless connectivity technologies including cellular and Wi-Fi makes the most sense to quickly and reliably set up Smart City networks, without having to start major urban construction projects requiring fixed cable and wired infrastructure. The result will be significant interaction enabling game changing improvements to life in a city.

However, cities must take proper measures to ensure secure municipal interactions while using a mix of interoperable wireless connectivity technologies to establish and utilize a large area network. Carriers can help to work with the public sector authorities to make their infrastructure available to support smart city projects and provide their expertise to help establish and manage Smart Cities.

Managing the complexities associated with Smart Cities requires significant effort and investment by those cities with the ambition and vision to participate in such a transformation task. Wireless connectivity technologies can be a key tool to overcome challenges in enabling next-generation digital improvements to traditional infrastructure. It will take new world architects to reshape urban landscapes so let’s get busy.

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