Smart Cities Could Be Gold Mine for Telcos

But this story will take years to write.

Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video

June 8, 2017

6 Min Read
Smart Cities Could Be Gold Mine for Telcos

It's slowly dawning on people that telecommunications infrastructure is at the heart of smart city development. I don't mean just connecting everyone and everything to the Internet. I mean figuring out how to build and maintain robust telecom networks that will be able to support electric utilities, transportation systems, educational institutions, public safety operations and much, much more at a fundamental level.

This is a huge opportunity for the telecom industry. And yet it's not at all clear that the industry is prepared -- mostly because smart city success is going to require network operators to work with local governments in ways they're not used to doing.

While I've been covering gigabit cities and some smart city attempts over the last few years, I'm taking the opportunity to study the topic more closely now. I'm interviewing city officials, talking to operators about their smart city strategies and monitoring regulatory efforts like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's new Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC).

One thing is clear: Nobody's figured out the magic formula yet.

Figure 1: LinkNYC kiosks An early look at LinkNYC kiosks, which are now deployed throughout the city and delivering free WiFi service. An early look at LinkNYC kiosks, which are now deployed throughout the city and delivering free WiFi service.

Purely from an infrastructure perspective, I've begun to think about smart cities by the layers of networks involved. There are the fiber networks that provide bedrock capacity, the wireless networks that are more often than not the direct interface for consumer communications and new sensor networks that will ultimately enable more machine-to-machine collaboration. City governments and ISPs are trying to create strategies around all three, but both sides still have a lot to learn, and that's a process Light Reading will chronicle.

Fighting for fiber
Consider fiber. Fights over fiber deployments are notorious. Whether it's Google Fiber Inc. illustrating how difficult it is for a non-incumbent provider to gain timely access to permitted sites for equipment installations, or it's Lumos Networks being asked to pay $2.50 per foot of network build by the city of Hopewell, Virginia even as a competitor is given access to the same right-of-way areas for free, the process for getting new fiber infrastructure installed is both time-consuming and expensive. (See Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole.)

For more broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.

Some municipalities are taking over ownership and operation of their own broadband networks, seeing that as an improvement over commercial alternatives. But in many cases, cities and private network operators are finding ways to work together. Some local governments are forming new types of partnerships with ISPs, like the city of Philadelphia's deal with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) to develop a fiber-based Institutional Network. (See In Philly, Comcast Trumps Muni Broadband.)

Others are investing in their own infrastructure and then making it accessible to private operators through an open access model as in Huntsville, Alabama. Still others are forming consortiums with nearby towns and universities to pool resources and attract private network investment like local cities and schools in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. (See Google to Weave Fiber to Huntsville, Ala. and Gigabites: NC Cities Issue New Gig RFP.)

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone is still experimenting.

Next Page: Gearing up for wireless

Gearing up for wireless
And then there are local wireless networks. Small cell deployments, which will be crucial for 5G, can be much less intrusive than macro cell installations, but on the other hand, the volume of small cell sites required for advanced wireless technologies will dwarf traditional macro cell sites in the near future. Cities are woefully unprepared to handle the increase in permitting requests and have very little sense of what to charge in rental agreements. According to smart city software company SmartWorks Partners , rental rates across the US for sites that are suitable for small cell attachments range from tens of dollars to multiple thousands of dollars per site per year.

Even where cities and wireless carriers are able to coordinate on permitting effectively, there's still a question of what benefits consumers should expect. Should cities provide free WiFi? Should carriers subsidize it in some places? Where should it be available? What restrictions should be imposed? How should security be implemented? Answers differ by the moment, by location, and by the stakeholders involved.

Sounding out sensor networks
More so than traditional wired and wireless networks, low-power sensor networks are uncharted territory for cities and service providers alike. Companies investing in proprietary and standardized technologies are still duking it out for control of the equipment ecosystem, and where cities are deploying sensor-based systems, they're often in pilot programs, as in Boston where the city is partnering with Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) on a highly-instrumented traffic intersection to determine how more sophisticated data collection and analysis can help improve road safety.

Figure 2: Verizon Smart Cities A Verizon spokesperson talks smart cities at Mobile World Congress. A Verizon spokesperson talks smart cities at Mobile World Congress.

There are also sector-led efforts in local communities which may or may not be tied together, like smart metering by utility companies, the rollout of WiFi-connected trash cans, or traffic cameras deployed in congested areas. While these individual efforts may have different starting points, cities and operators ultimately have to be able to ensure that the underlying communications networks don't cause interference for each other, are scalable and secure.

Solving for Smart Cities
There are beginning to be resources for local governments, institutions and network operators that want to work together. Several cities are publishing their smart city visions and early information on how programs are progressing. Organizations like MetroLab Network and US Ignite are nurturing programs that support collaboration among different smart city participants. And within the FCC, the BDAC has now formed working groups to investigate and provide recommendations on issues related to accelerating network deployments. As part of that process, numerous documents are being submitted to the public record with information on what cities, service providers and experts have learned through their own studies and experiences.

In the coming months, I'll also be reporting on what early smart city efforts are starting to reveal, focusing on the telecommunications perspective: what it takes to lay the groundwork for future smart cities, and specifically how network operators and the public sector can and are partnering on joint projects. This isn't new material for Light Reading, but it is an expansion of coverage.

Need something to read in the meantime? Check out the links below to some of Light Reading's earlier smart city reporting, and stay tuned for more.

Related posts:

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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