Small cells must be deployable at scale, or the smart city vision will fail
Ahead of CEO Sue Monahan’s keynote address at the DC5G Summit in Washington DC this week, we examine how small cells can meet the needs of smart cities.
‘Smart city’ is in danger of becoming one of those phrases which loses its meaning through overuse. There is a worrying tendency to refer to any city which is piloting a sensor-enabled refuse bin as ‘smart’.
But truly smart cities go well beyond individual applications, however useful. They provide fully integrated and connected services across every aspect of life and work. That involves:
- supporting connectivity everywhere for citizens, visitors and all kinds of devices in the Internet of Things
- supporting flexible creation and delivery of a wide variety of wireless services, with high levels of automation
- using a single platform to coordinate those services, and using all the data they generate to understand city processes better, and improve them in future.
This unified, highly integrated and intelligent platform is the vision for many cities, and some have very advanced projects – San Francisco and Washington DC in the US, Bristol in the UK and Yinchuan in China are some examples. However, there is still a big gulf, in most areas, between vision and reality.
Small Cell Forum is determined to help bridge that gulf, and it is taking part, for the first time, in the DC5G Summit in Washington DC on October 11. The event brings together representatives from the worlds of telecoms, satellite and policy, to examine the opportunities offered by 5G, including those for vertical markets and for cities.
The Forum’s CEO, Sue Monahan, will address the topic: ‘Why cities and municipalities should be excited about 5G’. She will explain that some of the key enablers of the smart city are not fully in place. A critical one is a small cell network which can be deployed at massive scale, covering every nook and cranny with strong wireless signals, in order to connect every citizen and connected object to every service.
That network needs to tick a long line of boxes. It needs, for example, to be:
- very simple and cost-effective to deploy and manage
- extremely reliable in order to support critical services like emergency response
- very power efficient to fit with sustainability goals
- very flexible, so it can support all kinds of use cases, including those which have not yet been imagined.
Without this ubiquitous, reliable network, a truly smart city is impossible. Small Cell Forum has a mission to ease the path to smart cities by accelerating progress to achieving this network, and working with municipalities and their many stakeholders to remove some of the barriers which still separate the vision and the reality.
Those barriers are practical and economic; they are not generally technical. In fact most of the technical enablers of a dense, ubiquitous network are in place or emerging soon, and they will be enhanced by the advent of 5G. For instance, 5G will support new levels of reliability, security and responsiveness (that is, low latency), through capabilities which will be ‘baked into’ the standards.
Nor are there barriers on the demand side. As SCF outlines in its Smart City Deployment Guide, there are three sources of pent-up demand for connected city services: citizens who want to have broadband access everywhere and to take part in city life digitally; businesses which want to introduce new ways of working, enabled by connectivity and the Internet of Things; and municipal governments, which want to make their cities attractive to visitors, residents and businesses, and to make their processes more efficient.
So what are the remaining barriers which are preventing cities from becoming truly smart?
There are three main ones:
Practical: a ubiquitous wireless network is the precursor of any smart city platform – and yet there are still many barriers to deployment, related to siting and approvals.
Commercial: many cities have not worked out the business case, and the most appropriate division of investment (between tax dollars and private sector) and of revenues (between cities, partners and service providers).
Communication: there are many stakeholders involved in a smart city, including the municipal government, the telco, service providers, utilities, transport companies, enterprises, citizen groups and many more. In many cases, these are working in siloes and failing to speak one another’s language, or to pool resources.
SCF can help to address all three of these barriers. It is working with governments, regulators, cities and others to help ease deployment, particularly by simplifying the process of applying for sites for small cells (often city furniture or enterprise locations) and the process of deploying and managing them. For instance, the Forum has worked with the IEC on a set of standard equipment classes for small cells; this allows approval of a large percentage of the cells to be rubber-stamped.
On the commercial side, SCF has worked on detailed business cases for city networks and on alternative operating models which can reduce cost and complexity. In particular, it has efforts dedicated to neutral host platforms, which allow several operators to share a single network while still differentiating their services.
And in terms of communication, the Forum aims to be a conduit between cities, operators, telecoms vendors, enterprises and other stakeholders. Its Release Program provides a blueprint for at-scale small cell deployment, and includes many documents which are written in the language of cities and businesses. It works closely with partner organizations in every area of the city value chain, such as the TIA (Telecoms Industry Association), with which the Forum is collaborating on a program to streamline roll-out processes and site access.
These three barriers need to be addressed quickly; otherwise cities will not be able to take full advantage of the considerable benefits 5G will bring to their platforms. Small cells are at the heart of 5G, which will support unprecedented levels of density, capacity, reliability and openness. It is critical that the small cell industry and cities round the world start to build strong bridges to prepare the path to 5G. Events like DC5G, and initiatives like the Forum’s city partnerships, will help to turn the vision into reality.