More than 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050, some 70% of the global population is expected to live in a city. In North America, city-dwellers already exceed 80% of the population. The urbanization of the world’s population will create huge challenges related to public health, pollution, energy, housing, safety and traffic. We need smarter ways to build and operate the cities of the future, and that’s why smart cities are a hot trend today.
In a smart city, there will be sensors everywhere, and IoT sensors, coupled with feedback loops through data centers or edge processing gateways, will fuel new applications and services. Think of streetlights that dim when no people are detected on a street, or sprinklers that turn on water only when needed, or parking sensors and cameras that direct traffic to available parking spots through a dynamic application.
Connectivity is the first key challenge in building out these sensor networks. There will ultimately be billions of devices, and they will need connectivity back to a data center or edge processing unit so they can relay their data to a smart city application. Of course, many smart city sensors will connect via wireless networks using protocols ranging from Zigbee, LoRa, Wi-Fi and 4G or 5G, but there is no such thing as a wireless network without wireline connectivity. Fiber remains one of the most robust ways to deliver large fronthaul and backhaul traffic.
As a result, cities that have been familiar with providing rights of way for water, gas and electricity services will have to add a fourth utility — connectivity. Cities must plan and implement ways to enable broadband connectivity to all citizens and edge devices for their future connected cities.
Until now, it has largely been service providers’ responsibility to build out fiber networks, but this is changing in the smart city era. Cities need ubiquitous fiber coverage, but they can’t rely on service providers to build out these networks everywhere because carriers normally only invest in areas where they can receive a good ROI. Cities need to provide infrastructure for poorer neighborhoods to counter the “digital divide” by ensuring that connectivity reaches everyone.
There are many hurdles to be overcome. Regulatory issues, lack of technical expertise and the need for new financial models still burden broadband deployments, but we are starting to see innovative approaches from cities with the political willpower to advance their communities. For example, cities are crossing departmental silos — the department of transportation typically has fiber at intersections, and cities are looking at sharing these fiber assets. To ease fiber deployments and reduce costs, cities should coordinate among departments so that when one department — water and power, for example — is planning to dig up a street, the city can lay conduit for future fiber deployments to reduce costs and simplify deployment. Streetlights are another example — cities are deploying smart light poles that incorporate concealment systems for sensors, cameras, wireless nodes, power systems and other components, and running fiber to them. These cities will have desirable assets when 5G small cells roll out and a leg up on the competition.
It will be each city’s responsibility to accelerate deployment and assist with these challenges to make it easier to deploy technology in their cities, or else they risk being left behind in the technology evolution and widening the digital divide. They already enable gas, water and electricity, and now they need to enable connectivity — not necessarily pulling the actual cables or lighting up the fiber, but enabling rights of way and providing the real estate for smart devices. In this way, cities can lay the groundwork for the rapid evolution and deployment of smart city applications and broadband connectivity throughout their community.
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