Smart cities are going to need a lot of connectivity, but what can telcos do to make sure they aren't stuck providing only the connectivity?
The question was a running theme during a panel hosted by Hewlett Packard Enterprise just before this week's Mobile World Congress Americas in San Francisco. Panelists pointed out that smart cities are challenging because the demand comes from the specific needs of each city. There's no universal template to apply.
Even so, telcos and cable operators would seem to have a natural advantage in wiring up a smart city. They own rights-of-way and relevant licenses, and they can navigate the regulatory maze.
"These things are all baseline knowledge within the telco," said Anthony Bartolo, president of business collaboration, mobility and IoT for Tata Communications.
But he added that telcos lack the "domain expertise" to be smart-city experts on their own. They need the support of an ecosystem, "because it's not like Lego pieces ... The reality is that there's complexity in each of the domains," he said. "The telco has a role, but that doesn't mean it plays up and down the stack."
Beyond connectivity, telcos are looking to provide services related to analytics, said Suparno Banjee, HPE's vice president of public sector business. "There are still revenues in connectivity, but they're looking at how they can monetize the data."
Large-scale services don't always need the help of a telco, because many of them act as their own service providers. Vaibhav Parmar, a PwC partner, pointed to electrical utilities as a prime example. "But you go to other parts of the world -- you go to smaller municipalities in the US -- they'll look to a telco," said.
In rural US areas, the incumbent telco has the connectivity, the customer relationships and history, and the billing capabilities already in place. All of those things can become a service the telco can offer to a municipality as the heart of an IoT deployment.
Beyond the US, one uncomfortable truth is that cities with more autocratic government make for easier deployments. It's difficult to work with separate water, electricity and transportation offices, for instance, Parmar said -- but under some governments, all those services live in one silo.
"You then have the city or that municipality playing the role of its own integrator. You have a city CIO or CTO who's got the ability to make all these procurement decisions," Parmar said.
For Tata, which has "50 or 60" smart-city proofs-of-concept going on, according to Bartolo, the prime testing ground is India. Since April, Tata has deployed smart-city gear, including some of HPE's, to cover 123 million people in India and expects to expand that to 200 million -- 53 cities' worth -- by year's end.
India makes a good test case because the conditions can be so extreme. In terms of heat, dust and human density -- because people stealing sensors is a potential issue -- India provides a higher degree of difficulty than most environments.
Neither are the economics favorable. "If I can get it working in a price-sensitive market like India, I can get it working anywhere in the world," Bartolo said.
It's also rich ground for use cases. Among Bartolo's examples was the idea of monitoring water levels in water towers. Previously, the procedure for checking if a tower was full was to look up and see if water was spilling out.
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— Craig Matsumoto, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading