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Smart cities: the connectivity conundrum

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

Commuter vs smart city

You’re driving to work in the middle of rush hour, nightmare! Yet the traffic keeps flowing because the lights react in real-time to prevent a jam. A waste collection vehicle pulls out in front of you on a narrow road, but instead of stopping at every bin it keeps on moving because sensors inform it to only dispose of waste in the bins that are full.

You arrive in the city centre and it’s time to find a parking spot. Fortunately, the GPS system in your smart car automatically identifies a location near your office. You step out of your car and its pouring with rain, but there’s no chance of flooded streets as sensors have already detected any problems with the drains and they’ve been fixed.

Strolling to your office, you realise you’ve forgotten your keys – no sweat – facial recognition technology built into surveillance cameras recognise your face and lets you straight in.

You’ve made it on time against all odds.

This is just one example of what life could be like in a smart city. It’s a city that uses technology and the internet to deliver efficiencies, operate more economically and enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors. Yet this future isn’t as far away. Cities across the globe are already implementing a range of smart city initiatives that support all of the above and more.

However, fundamental infrastructure is required today to ensure that smart city innovation can be sustained: effective mobile coverage systems. This consists of 4G and eventually 5G connectivity, coverage for emergency services, as well as low-power wide area network (LPWAN) connectivity which can connect millions of low smart city devices in an affordable way.

Where does the responsibility lie?

The smart city connectivity conundrum is being tackled by three major stakeholders: communication service providers (CSPs), businesses and venue owners. There is an expectation on CSPs to provide robust coverage across every location in a city. Venue owners must ensure that their properties have coverage so that they are attractive proposition to their tenants. And businesses must ensure that they provide the necessary connectivity in order to leverage and monetise smart city and IoT technology and deliver connectivity to their employees and visitors.

Yet these stakeholders are faced with a similar set of challenges. Buildings are made of dense and reflective materials that can prevent radio frequency (RF) energy penetrating buildings, meaning that providing complete coverage in a venue or outdoor environment can be a challenge. They also require technology that can deliver both indoor and outdoor connectivity efficiently, despite the different factors effecting signal quality in these diverse environments.

What is required is a cost efficient, powerful and scalable connectivity solution, which can support various smart city and IoT/M2M applications. The solution must also be able to provide capacity to support a vast range of high throughput data services for traditional mobile users and emergency service communications, in any environment (indoor and outdoor). The system must also be accessible and shared, if necessary, by all stakeholders involved, in order to support smart city growth on a large scale.

An intelligent solution

Digital distributed antenna systems (digital DAS), are now emerging as the optimal network architecture to support the various connectivity needs of a smart city. Digital DAS offers a scalable and energy efficient method of delivering coverage and capacity to almost any environment. The technology can support 3G, 4G, narrowband connectivity and eventually 5G, making it completely future proof.

Digital DAS solutions are typically based on a Cloud-Radio Access Network (C-RAN) approach, which means that all radio processing technology is focussed and centralised in one location within a city and managed in the cloud. This removes the cost and complexity of having multiple system sites for each venue or area that needs to be connected.

This centralised model also enables network capacity to be cost-effectively distributed to different sectors of a building, or areas across a city, in accordance with where capacity is required. So, for example, capacity could be shifted to key transport links such as metros and train stations during key commuter hours; shifted to a major business premises during the day; then to a stadium to support coverage of an event at night. This approach ensures that network capacity isn’t wasted and is used efficiently, all 24/7, reducing OPEX for the CSP providing the coverage.

C-RAN digital DAS also enables multiple stakeholders to benefit from a single, shared architecture. For example, a business or venue could commission and pay for the physical network, allowing CSPs to use the network to deliver the connectivity. This ‘neutral host’ model enables specific buildings or areas of city to receive high quality coverage that would not typically qualify for CSP investment. The ability to support multiple CSPs, across different radio frequencies, is also a key feature of digital DAS, delivering huge savings for each CSP as there is no need to construct individual networks.

With smart city services applications and the number of IoT end user device growing at rapid rate, it is critical that the connectivity foundations are established early on. A number of operators in Berlin are leveraging an intelligent digital DAS (idDAS) solution to provide coverage to some of the busiest areas of the city, overcoming traditional capacity and coverage problems. The solution supports cellular, public safety and IP backhaul communications on the same infrastructure without interference, delivering cost reductions. It is also a multiband and multiple operator solution, removing the need for duplicate equipment. Others operators and venue owners across the globe must follow suit and invest in the solutions that can support the increasing demanded for connectivity. This will allow them to provide the necessary coverage for the growing number of smart city and IoT applications, improve performance for mobile subscribers, whilst reducing both CAPEX and OPEX.

Ingo Flomer, product management strategy, Cobham Wireless
Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

Ingo Flomer is responsible for defining the product management strategy at Cobham Wireless. He has over 20 years’ experience in telecommunications infrastructure and is also an Advisory Board Member for several enterprises and research projects.