Will 5G trigger smart city PPP collaboration?

As discussed in previous analyses, the arrival of 5G will trigger a totally new development in telecommunications. Not just in relation to better broadband services on mobile phones – it will also generate opportunities for a range of IoT (internet of things) developments that among other projects are grouped together under smart cities (feel free to read ‘digital’ or ‘connected cities’).

The problems related to the development 5G infrastructure as well as to smart cities, offer a great opportunity to develop new business models for both telecommunications companies as well as for cities and communities, to create win-win situations.

5G will require a massive increase in the number of infrastructure access points in mobile networks; many more towers and antennas will need to be installed by the telecommunications companies to deliver the wide range of services that are becoming available through this new technology. Furthermore, all the access points need to be connected to a fibre optic network to manage the capacity and the quality needed for the many broadband services that will be carried over it.

This is ideal network structure for cities who require a very dense level of connectivity, but cities don’t have the funds to make that happen. So telecommunications companies working together with cities could be a win-win situation.

Cities that do have a holistic and integrated smart city strategy in place can take a leadership role by developing the requirements needed for a city-wide digital infrastructure that can provide the social and economic benefits for its citizens. The critical element of an integrated strategy is that it must cut through the traditional bureaucratic silo structures.

5G is an ideal technology for a range of city-based IoT services in relation to energy, environment, sustainability, mobility, healthcare, etc. Mobile network infrastructure (incl 5G) will generally follow the main arteries and hotspots of the city, where there at the same time is usually a range of city- and utilities-based infrastructure that can be used for 5G co-location. IoT is also seen by the operators as a new way to move up the value chain.

But if we are looking at 5G as potential digital infrastructure for smart cities, the cities infrastructure requirements will need to be discussed upfront with the network operators who are interested in building 5G networks. By working with the cities these operators instantly get so-called anchor tenants for their network, which will help them to develop the viable business and investments models needed for such a network. The wrong strategy would be put the requirements of the telecommunications before that of the cities.

The development of 5G will take a decade or so (2020-2030) and it is obvious that cities that already have their strategic (holistic) smart city plans ready are in a prime position to sit down with the operators; and they will be among the first who will be able to develop connected cities for their people. This will, of course, create enormous benefits and will attract new citizens and new businesses, especially those who understand the advantages of living or being situated in such a digital place.

MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) are another potential winner in this development – they could specialise in what is needed to create a smart city, smart community, smart precinct, etc.

Telecommunication companies AT&T and Verizon in the USA clearly see the opportunities to work with cities, however, this is mainly based on getting easy access to valuable city real estate to install thousands of new antennas rather than looking at this infrastructure development from a city perspective. There is even some bullying involved by threatening that cities will be left behind if they don’t jump onboard their 5G plans.

The city of Knoxville in Tennessee is another early starter here. In this case the city has taken the initiative, but so far it has still been looked at as a technology project rather than that they are looking at this in a holistic strategic way; what 5G infrastructure can do in relation to broader social and economic benefits for the city.

My concerns are that these developments are driven by the technologists and operators, not by a holistic and strategic city approach, and that in general these developments are limited to providing 5G mobile access in the traditional mobile phone scenario. Of course, this is also good for the city, but with strategic planning there is so much more that can be achieved.

My argument is that cities need to take the leadership to turn this opportunity into much broader social and economic benefits within the context of developing smart cities.

A smaller but much smarter city-based development is taking place in the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, Australia.  LED lighting poles will be installed to host the 4G mobile antennas that are upgradable to 5G once commercial use of this technology becomes more viable.  The nodes will also provide free high‐speed Wi‐Fi through the space, as well as featuring general purpose power points, electric vehicle charge points and Ranger Assist pushbuttons.

Such an approach also opens up opportunities for much broader collaboration projects (energy companies, transport organisations, businesses, community groups, just to name a few). This will increase the benefits and decrease the costs. Having said this, it is well-known that it is not easy to get companies to genuinely collaborate (especially with telecoms operators and large international technology firms). Nevertheless, with 5G around the corner this could become an excellent vehicle for Private, Public, People, Partnerships.

Paul Budde





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