As more U.S. city governments deploy automated, digital and connected services to make their urban environments smarter, they will need to make sure they have the right mix of wireless network connectivity options and the infrastructure to support those technologies, industry analysts say.
According to analysts at IHS Technology, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are the leading U.S. metropolises that are turning to smart-city technology. But recently, other cities have announced prominent smart-city partnerships, as well. For example, in January AT&T forged partnerships with Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, IBM, Intel and Qualcomm to make it easier to deploy technologies and selected Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas to be among the testing grounds for the new alliances.
Undergirding all of these changes is wireless technology, according to Roz Euan-Smith, senior analyst for smart cities at IHS. The company predicts that smart cities will provide $25 billion in opportunities for wireless operators by 2020.
“When cities want to implement smart-city projects, regardless of the scale they’re thinking of, they need to address the connectivity in the city,” Euan-Smith said in an interview with StateTech. “[Internet of things] projects just aren’t going to work if they don’t have the connectivity part right.”
Finding the Right Wireless Technology
The promise of smart cities is largely in adding connectivity to infrastructure so that it can become more automated and efficient, delivering savings for municipalities and improved services for residents. Indeed, some form of connectivity to record and transmit data is required for all of those connected streetlights, intelligent parking systems and efficient utilities.
The technology landscape for many U.S. cities is “fragmented at the moment,” according to Euan-Smith, and “often, the city’s economics will dictate what they invest in.” There will always be trade-offs, she said, noting that cellular wireless technology is very expensive to deploy but also more reliable than Wi-Fi.
Laying out options, Euan-Smith said that some cities might decide to go with a mesh network, in which each node relays data throughout the network, while others might use ultra-narrow-band (UNB) technology, which involves long-range communications on license-free wireless spectrum, from companies like Telensa. Different applications will be better suited for varying forms of connectivity protocols, she explained, adding that UNB is best suited for connecting smart streetlights, but video streaming for safety and transportation may require high-bandwidth cellular connectivity.
Euan-Smith told StateTech that Wi-Fi “is often used as a citywide infrastructure management connectivity technology for controlling applications and backhauling data.”
Another technology, the 802.15.4g protocol, is “a robust [low-power wireless] technology that enables mesh networks” and is “used for many smart-cities applications, but especially connected street lighting,” according to Euan-Smith. Another is Power Line Communication, which the analysts called “a dependable and mature technology” that is used in connected street lights, especially in Europe.
In terms of low-power wide-area network technology, the analysts expect it to be adopted slowly for the purpose of smart-city solutions. Euan-Smith pointed out, though, that it “will be good for applications that need a very low cost connectivity solution and don’t require much bandwidth.”
However, cellular technology is starting to become a popular option, and IHS “forecasts strong uptake of cellular in street lighting as a high-performance backbone network to support other municipal applications such as traffic management, environmental-sensor networks, et cetera,” Euan-Smith said.
Euan-Smith recommends that city governments work with their technology partners to “find the best way to make sure you’ve got secure, reliable connectivity while choosing the connectivity method that is most appropriate to the application. It might end up being a heterogeneous environment.”
Street Lights, Transportation Among Most Popular Projects
So which U.S. metropolises are taking the lead? Euan-Smith said Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco will continue to be at the forefront because they already have projects underway and “have the right conditions to increase the development. They are large cities, so they have a need to have smart-city projects to help them manage their core services better.”
She noted that Chicago “has been quite innovative in terms of its use of data and the way that it is focused on being a more data-centric city.” Meanwhile, New York just launched its LinkNYC kiosks in Manhattan, converting old phone booths into hotspots with gigabit Wi-Fi Internet speeds and mobile apps and services.
As for which types of smart-city tech solutions are popular, Euan-Smith cited smart street lighting for two reasons. One is that it provides proven cost savings in terms of energy efficiency, since lights with embed sensors can be programmed to be dimmed when no one is nearby but will become brighter if a car or pedestrian passes. These lights can also be managed remotely. Secondly, streetlights spread throughout a city can form a “connectivity backbone” to support other sensors to monitor things like air quality.
Another up-and-coming smart-city service is intelligent transportation systems. This is especially favored among urban areas looking to cut automobile emissions, Euan-Smith said. A smart parking system that uses sensors and alerts drivers via a mobile app when a parking spot is available could reduce traffic and idling on city streets, she added.
“I think the way the smart-cities market is going to develop worldwide is, we’re going to see more incremental development,” she predicted. “It’s not going to be like flipping the switch and saying, ‘OK, this city is smart.’ It’s going to be built up gradually.”