5G Will (Almost) Make Smart Cities Possible

The reliability of 5G networks is critical to the success of smart cities applications. This puts network testing back into the communications technology spotlight.

Stephen Douglas, Solutions & Technical Strategy Lead, Internet of Things, Spirent Communications

December 28, 2018

6 Min Read
5G Will (Almost) Make Smart Cities Possible

The smart city movement may someday be the most transformative step in the history of urbanization. According to the Global Commission on Economy & Climate, smart cities may save the world as much as $22 trillion by 2050. With traffic congestion, deteriorating infrastructure, crime and other challenges impacting cities the world over, smart city innovations cannot come too quickly.

Smart city technology will benefit transportation, healthcare, education, building management, city governance and more. Operating across a vast ecosystem of sensors, mobile devices, communication networks and data centers that are enhanced by advanced analytics including AI, the system will enable smart energy harvesting and storage, building automation and smart traffic management -- even notifying drivers of available spaces in parking lots. It will also assist in crime prevention, help improve school security, facilitate disaster management and increase preventive healthcare through lifestyle nudges at both the personal and social levels.

5G at the center
Many believe that 5G will be the key to smart cities. Though most often hyped for its blazingly fast data rates, 5G could also provide coverage density 100 times greater than current standards. Able to support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, 5G will deliver the massive improvements in speed, throughput, device deployment, traffic capacity, latency and spectrum efficiency required by the smart city ecosystem.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the move to 5G is accelerating. Mainstream global deployment of commercial 5G networks are underway, and the first 5G smartphones are slated to arrive next year. China Telecom Group estimates a capex of $280 billion through 2030, and US capex in 5G infrastructure is expected to hit $1.2 trillion by 2035.

Part of the excitement surrounding 5G is its ability to create new services due to its speed and density support. Tourism, for example, will get a big boost through innovations like augmented reality experiences at historic sites. Merchants and visitor services will benefit as well, as 5G-enabled apps provide context-sensitive promotions, discounts and city information.

Of course, 5G can't exist alone; other technologies, introduced both before and after 5G, will make the smart city ecosystem possible. Led by smart buildings and homes, more than 3.3 billion objects will be connected by the end of 2018. Sensors, gateways, video/audio capture devices, actuators and crowd sensing technologies are increasing at incredible rates. Data is flowing between and among numerous networks from RFID and WiFi to Ethernet and 5G-enabled WANs.

As machine learning and AI capabilities become common, data analytics will have perhaps the most significant impact on 5G/smart city development. Some AI-enabled solutions are already in use. The New York City Fire Department uses data mining and predictive analytics from 7,500 factors across 17 different city-agency data streams to assign fire risk scores to the 1 million-plus buildings across the five boroughs. By doing so, the city hopes to preemptively reduce the 3,000 major building fires that occur each year.

Challenges to 5G
With the promise of 5G comes significant concerns. Cost is a significant factor; companies and government entities are investing billions in devices, chipsets, antennas, cloud distributions and other hardware and systems, not to mention retrofitting existing infrastructure. Complexity will rise as well, as new frequencies (millimeter wave) and new technologies (Massive MIMO and beamforming) change radio design. The lack of universally accepted platforms and standards also complicate the situation, slowing deployment of equipment and services.

The biggest single challenge, however, is security. A massive increase in connected devices and pervasive use of virtualization with edge distributions will exacerbate security threats and broaden the attack surface. DDoS, man-in-the-middle attacks in Cloud RAN distributions and network slice faking are just a few of the ways smart city systems will be vulnerable. Furthermore, using personal devices for crowd sensing presents a three-way challenge to service providers: empowerment, trust and privacy. As interconnectedness and ubiquity increases, the security of smart city systems will be paramount.

How stakeholders must respond
With so much at stake, testing and assurance of nearly every aspect of smart city componentry will be critical. Networks, devices and services all need verification that they can support not only volume and throughput but also the security standards necessary to ensure data integrity and prevent an external attack.

Considering all the competitive and cost pressures that accompany major technology advancements, testing can easily become a low priority. But if stakeholders get security and reliability right from day one, it solves a lot of concerns later -- and significantly mitigates political, business and public safety risks.

Smart city systems are expected to perform flawlessly. Autonomous vehicle operation, for example, requires data flows that are instantaneous and highly reliable. In-depth testing of data networks to ensure fast and secure data plane traffic for millions of vehicles and systems will be essential. Network test solutions are available that emulate 5G devices, user traffic and network functions to test 5G mobile and core infrastructure, ensuring its readiness for successful 5G rollout.

For devices, test solutions ensure that fast-evolving products are both interoperable and able to deliver the quality of service that end users expect. It's vital to include testing not only at an early stage but throughout the product lifecycle. From the design phase to pre-production, manufacturing, QA and post-deployment, testing ensures that devices and applications are ready for operation and prepared to support the debut of new services as they become available.

Smart cities are universal
No discussion of the smart city movement is complete without a mention of its benefits not just for city dwellers, but also those outside -- even far outside -- the city center. While many are concerned that smart cities will create a digital divide that leaves rural communities behind, it's far more likely that smart city technology will be a boon for these outlying regions.

Smart city networks will generate valuable data for farmers, manufacturers, trucking companies and other commercial entities. Accessing that data will allow precision agriculture, support transportation networks and create new cost efficiencies. As long as stakeholders incorporate these functions into their long-range plans, smart city networks will have a far-reaching positive impact.

There's no question that the next few years will be the era of 5G-powered smart city services. From Dubai to Columbus, Ohio, smart city infrastructure will change the way many of us work, play and live. As we deploy 5G and all the innovations it will support, however, it's essential that we ensure the performance and security of these transformations. In the end, performing due diligence on the integrity of smart city technology may be the smartest step we take.

— Stephen Douglas, Solutions & Technical Strategy, Strategic Marketing, Spirent

About the Author(s)

Stephen Douglas

Solutions & Technical Strategy Lead, Internet of Things, Spirent Communications

Stephen works for Spirent's strategy organization, helping to define technical direction, new innovative solutions and market leading disruptive technologies which make a real difference.


With close to 20 years' experience in telecommunications, Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with multiple service providers, start-ups and tier 1 OEM's, helping them drive innovation and transformation. Stephen is an ardent believer in connected technology and strives to challenge, blur and break down the silos which prevent innovation and business success.

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