Towards the fully-connected city: 5G, neutral host and smart cities


A city whose systems share information for the benefits of its occupants is the simplest, and perhaps best definition of a ‘smart city’.

With current and emerging technology solutions set to act as ‘accelerants’ for smart cities, innovation will drive changes in the way we live and work. These include 5G wireless, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, Wi-Fi 6, edge computing, biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

In the transport space, connected railways, highways, ports and stations sharing information in real-time helps improve efficiencies, manage traffic flows, and predict and avoid failures. For consumers, enhanced connectivity can optimize live data feeds to keep passengers updated about arrival times, inform them of congestion and alternative routes, enable contactless ticketing and provide real-time social distancing measures to improve passenger comfort and safety.

It is an exciting future, but for it to be realized, cities will need to invest in infrastructure planning as well as technology selection to have a holistic view of what a smart city can become.

Infrastructure planning and neutral host providers

Cities planning new infrastructure need to understand which business models and technology choices will best meet the needs of their residents’ and businesses’ alike.

Extending or upgrading existing data networks can be expensive; building new ones may be prohibitive. As many municipalities and corporations do not have the resources to act as a network service provider, a public-private partnership (PPP) model may be a more practical solution. Collaborating with a third-party neutral host network (NHN) provider allows both business and government organizations to modernize their infrastructure without having to make large up-front capital investments. Partnering with mobile network operators (MNOs) delivers capital and operational cost savings in the building, maintaining, and upgrading of a network.

There are other benefits too. NHN providers specialize in projects that would otherwise be technically too difficult or financially too marginal for a single organization to deliver. They provide their customers with state-of-the-art service and build the network to enable all foreseeable use cases. Scalability and upgradeability are incorporated from the start to ensure cost-effective upgrades over decades, not years.

5G: the game-changer

This year (2021) will be crucial for 5G development. As more mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, and wearables, integrate this technology, customers will increasingly expect their network providers to offer 5G access.

For public transit 5G has several attributes that are desirable for network integration. In addition to faster connection speeds, it offers lower power consumption and more capacity. These features enable IoT sensor deployment at scale, generating more comprehensive data feeds. The insights derived from these sensors can provide a real-time view of current conditions.

Fitting additional sensors to tracks, transit vehicles, and other assets will enable enhancements such as vehicle health monitoring, predictive maintenance, and overcrowding notifications. Connecting on-platform and in-carriage cameras, ticketing systems and digital signage will allow more granular data feeds that improve safety and reliability. Thus, the transit network will become a more attractive option for travellers – helping restore public confidence and ridership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NHN providers can deploy all these technologies – and more – so transit authorities can focus on making their services safer, faster, and more reliable. A single, converged platform can eliminate the need for patchwork solutions, parallel networks, and redundant equipment.

More than just fast speeds

The emergence of 5G amplifies the benefits NHN providers can deliver. While most users are familiar with the fast speeds 5G offers, there are many other benefits that are derived from this technology.

In the transit sector, network speed is an important feature which enables seamless cellular handoff from one connection point to another. However, not all sensors require a fast connection. Certain sensors are used in remote or hard-to-reach locations. For these sensors, battery life is a much bigger challenge. Fortunately, 5G’s low power consumption means these sensors can now easily be deployed at scale.

Cost is another advantage of this new technology as 5G chips are significantly less expensive than their predecessors. In many cases 5G chip prices cost well below a dollar, compared to previous costs of over $10 per chip. This price reduction helps to remove cost barriers that prevented many systems from being economically feasible in the past.

The result is that low-power, low-latency sensors can be widely used to generate more granular data, and in turn, help create smarter, more integrated systems.

Towards the fully-connected city

If a smart city is one in which systems share information, then 5G and NHN providers are the catalysts to enabling its adoption. Modernizing infrastructure and deploying connected devices enable intersystem data flows which are then analysed and trigger system events automatically, in real-time. Transit applications include, but are not limited to, service schedules that can be adjusted on the fly, diverting passengers to alternate routes, or the deployment of maintenance teams to proactively resolve a problem before it causes a failure or service interruption.

Making a city ‘smart’ is not about every department setting up ‘smart’ projects but rather about deploying infrastructure that supports data aggregation and makes it available across various departments and organizations. Ensuring new 5G devices can efficiently communicate with existing infrastructure, including non-5G devices, is essential to delivering on the fully-connected city vision.

With more information gathered from interconnected systems, transit authorities are empowered to better serve their customers and business partners. With 5G and an NHN partner, making cities smart has never been easier.

Ian Gallagher is Vice President, Smart Transit and Infrastructure at BAI Communications

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