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The challenge in making 5G work for smart cities



Feature: Financial factors, commercial models, geography and planning regulations can all pose problems for local authorities with an eye on the technology

It may be a promise for the 2020s rather than here and now, but 5G and its implications for the development of smart places is moving up the agenda for all those involved.

The new wireless broadband technology promises to run many times faster than the existing 4G, with the scope for bandwidths touching 1Gbps for some applications and the ability to handle the exponential growth in connections that comes with the internet of things (IoT).

Authorities are already welcoming the potential of 5G networks, but they are going to have to change some of their own approaches to planning and infrastructure development to ensure it is fulfilled.

The issue came under discussion at last week’s Smart Summit 2017 event in London, in a session that highlighted some of the serious challenges involved in harnessing the technology.

Aberdeen driver

The big driver for its adoption was made clear by Gordon Wright, future city lead at Aberdeen City Council, one of the 5G pioneer authorities in local government.

“We see the emergence of 5G as something that starts to create a unified, connected city with a number of network capabilities beneath it,” he said.

“It’s about the opportunity 5G will bring to disrupt the market, from where you’re locking the capacity within your own network to something in which you can push capabilities across a number of networks.”

Julian David, chief executive officer of IT industry association techUK, highlighted the increased capacity and reduced latency compared with existing networks, crucial factors in the use of connected vehicles and harnessing the IoT for rapid responses.

Equally important is the long term flexibility in making it possible to create different types of connectivity with multiple users. This should break through the current limitations of blocks of spectrum and help to meet an unprecedented expansion of requirements.

All this is feeding the hopes for 5G, but it is going to require a massive investment in the infrastructure and the speakers made clear there are some serious challenges.

Small cell volume

One of these is around the lead option for providing 5G in cities, the provision of small cell miniature base stations as the basis for a network. These can operate on low power but also have a limited range – in the low hundreds of metres – and David pointed out that it is going to need a lot of them to provide universal coverage. The estimates for London alone are for a number approaching 200,000, pointing towards a major programme with the potential to hit logistical difficulties and raise protests along the way.

He pointed to the need for a more sympathetic approach to planning applications for 5G stations, which needs a lot of authorities to speed up the process, and to worry less about objections to the use of street furniture to provide the infrastructure.

Authorities also need to create a welcoming climate for operators. He suggested they could be more sympathetic when operators have to park their vans in restricted areas to carry out maintenance – matching a privilege already enjoyed by Royal Mail – and keep the business rates to reasonable levels.

Another issue is the heavy volume of data moving through 5G will knock on to the fixed line broadband networks to which it is connected, pointing to a need for more fibre, and this could place a strain on the ducting infrastructure, especially around older cities.

Then comes the pressure to ensure that 5G does not reinforce social exclusion by making sure it is available in all parts of a town or city, including those lower down the socio-economic scale that are often unattractive to commercial investment.

Along with this is the familiar issue of how to provide any communications infrastructure over sparsely populated rural areas, especially those with hilly terrain.

Cost of billions

The costs for dealing with all this are going to be in billions, and while nobody seriously expects local authorities to pay the bill, they have to create the environment in which commercial operators are ready to do so. This comes down partly to shaping a mutually beneficial deal for both sides, which provides scope for multiple operators to build their own connections and services.

David said there is a need “to think of digital infrastructure in different way, about investment environment as well as the consumer. It’s very well to sell this to highest bidder, but not the way to get fast implementation.”

Responsibility for the solutions is spread between central and local government. The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport won praise for its development of a national strategy for 5G, and its financial support for a test network. But there was also some criticism of the Government’s limited ambitions for high speed broadband availability, which reduces the urgency of one of the demands for 5G.

Local government needs to build the right partnerships. Richard Marijs, technology strategist for mobile communications company T-Mobile, highlighted an approach in which an authority engages one company to renew all the infrastructure in an area – lampposts, fibre ducts, even sewers – and provide the scope for others to install the more specific technologies.

Commercial platform

Wright said that Aberdeen has used a relationship with one to provide a commercial model to deal with the challenges around planning, regulations and access to  buildings, and to develop a commercial platform on which other operators can add their contributions.

“The challenge is find the alliance and commons model,” he said. “We want investment across the city, with efficient and effective economies at scale.”

There are plenty of complexities in all this, but also a sense of urgency to overcome the barriers. David summed up the main priority with a simple message: “We’ve got speed up. We can’t take forever to do this stuff.”

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