Nearly 55 percent of the Earth’s population now lives in metropolitan areas, and that figure is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2050. People are drawn to cities for a number of reasons — in fact, 1.4 million people migrate to urban areas every week — whether seeking employment and educational opportunities, exposure to the arts and cultural institutions, or a more cosmopolitan lifestyle enjoyed in a diverse community, according to the United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects Report.
However, despite its attractions, the experience of urban living is fraught with challenges — from overtaxed energy and transit systems, to persistent issues surrounding crime and public safety, to concerns about the quality of the water we drink and the air that we breathe. Many of these urban hazards are rooted in outdated infrastructure. Hence, as the number of people living in cities continues to surge, modernizing the urban environment becomes a matter of social responsibility that sweeps across both public and private domains.
Enter the smart city and its promise to transform how we live, work and play — not as a matter of hype or fantasy, but of making use of existing and emerging technologies to createsafer, healthier and more sustainable urban communities.
So Much Data
According to a survey by the National League of Cities, 66 percent of U.S. cities report that they are investing in smart city technology, and 25 percent without any smart city systems are exploring future implementations. The most common smart city applications are smart meters for utilities, intelligent traffic signals, Wi-Fi kiosks, radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors in pavement for monitoring road damage and traffic flow, and e-governance applications.
The core technology behand all smart city initiatives is the internet of things (IoT), the network of physical, connected devices that generates, collects, exchanges and acts upon data. According to research by the business intelligence firm IoT Analytics, the number of active IoT devices in 2018 was 7 billion. The number is expected to grow to 10 billion next year and reach 22 billion by 2025.
Smart cities and IoT-enabled devices create enormous amounts of data, and turning this into actionable information requires a layered ecosystem. Cloud computing provides a strong enabling platform for smart cities because it provides the necessary scale, storage and processing power, along with the ability to integrate all the disparate data sources to effectively derive insights from this information. However, as smart cities grow in complexity, placing increasingly high demands on centralized cloud data centers, edge computing will be needed to overcome limitations in latency and the demand for more local processing.
Gartner defines edge computing as solutions that facilitate data processing at or near the source of data generation. In the context of the IoT, the sources of data generation are the things with sensors or embedded devices. Critical for such applications as autonomous vehicles, edge computing allows smart applications and devices to respond to data almost instantaneously, as it is being created, thus eliminating lag time. For the driverless car entering a busy intersection at rush hour or confronted with a jaywalking pedestrian transfixed by his smartphone, latency is not an inconvenience but a human safety issue.
Many industry experts also believe that collocation facilities will become essential to smart city development, particularly data centers in or near major metro areas. In turning to collocation, smart city planners and service providers will need to prioritize scalable storage for the exponential increase in data and the computing power needed for advanced analytics. Many edge devices and smart systems do not have adequate computing power to accomplish this on their own. And, once again, moving data back and forth to the cloud presents challenges of latency and bandwidth as well as security.
5G and Small Cells
Along with the cloud, edge computing and collocation, next‐generation 5G wireless networks will be integral to meeting the needs of smart cities.
According to the National League of Cities, wireless data consumption in 2018 reached approximately 1.8 exabytes per month in North America alone. That number is projected to increase six-fold over the next three years. In contrast to current 4G LTE networks, 5G wireless is expected to provide gigabit speeds, sub-1-millisecond latency and the capacity to connect 2.5 million devices per square mile.
5G, in turn, will require both macrocell and small cell technologies, which, although they serve different purposes, complement each other. Traditional macrocell towers have a coverage area that spans several miles in each direction; however, their signal degrades toward the edge of their coverage areas. With the increasing use of wireless devices and data, small cell facilities can be used to increase the mobile broadband network capacity in smart cities.
Unlike traditional macrocell towers, small cell installations generally cover much smaller geographic areas, measured in hundreds of feet. The antennas are much smaller than those deployed at macrocell sites and are often attached to buildings, rooftops and structures in public rights of way, including utility and light poles, on street furniture or on other public or private property. These installations help to extend macrocell coverage and add capacity in high-demand urban areas. Small cell infrastructure is typically deployed to alleviate capacity constraints in public spaces, high-traffic pedestrian areas, parks, office buildings, campuses, and stadiums and arenas.
Fiber, the Smart City Backbone
For 5G to deliver on its promise of smart city enablement, both macrocell and small cell technologies require connections to high-capacity wired networks, and these connections will ideally be made with fiber. Copper will not work for 5G because of its limited bandwidth. And although some industry prognosticators point to microwave in areas where laying fiber is not practical for geographic reasons or where access is not permitted, microwave is not a scalable solution. There’s no question that fiber is the optimal choice for serving the increasing number of wireless endpoints that 5G small cells will create, and at the necessary transport bandwidth these new technologies will demand.
Smart city planning must include massive fiber-optic backbones to support small cells and traditional cell sites, private communications networks for city services, and public and private Wi-Fi and private networks for internet connections to businesses. Whether in service of smart buildings, smart utilities or mobile health (mHealth) applications that will transform ambulances into mobile emergency rooms,all of these smart city applications and systems will depend on high-speed, low-latency, ultra-reliable communications networks running on fiber.
The Fiber Broadband Association estimates that nearly 1.4 million miles of fiber-optic cable will be required to provide comprehensive 5G service to just 25 metropolitan areas in the United States. The most demanding 5G applications will require fiber to be extended to each small cell, but the exact fiber cable requirements for each deployment will differ based on local geography and expected demand.
Top Smart Cities — Some Surprises
The Eden Strategy Institute, a sustainability consulting firm based in Singapore, recently announced its rankings of the top 50 smart cities worldwide. It’s interesting to note that 12 of the smart cities recognized were in the United States — including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco — but it’s even more interesting that so-called Tier II and III cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri, were also on the list. In fact, a recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that of 335 smart city projects in 54 metro areas across the country, 98 have been deployed in small cities, compared to 69 in large metropolitan areas.
That would include Ketchum, Idaho, with a population of about 5,400 people. In Ketchum, a smart irrigation project has replaced existing irrigation systems with weather- and soil-activated sensors that can be managed and monitored remotely. The IoT-enabled irrigation systems are expected to reduce water usage by 20 to 60 percent, saving more than 1 million gallons annually.
You may not yet live in a smart city, and for that matter, life in a briskly paced metropolis might not ever be for you. But considering the example of Ketchum, a town better known for hiking, fishing and skiing than technology, it’s likely that smart city infrastructure will be coming to your community soon, too.
Tom Caruso is vice president of operations at Hellman Electric.
This article in the June 2019 issue of AGL Magazine.