Making smart cities a smarter way

With all the hype around smart cities today, you would think they are ubiquitous. Even though there are a few high-profile examples, smart cities aren’t yet as widespread as you might think.

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Almost everywhere I travel these days I hear someone talking about making their city a "smart city." I personally put the most faith in those initiatives that have determined what they want "smart" to accomplish whether it be zero net water consumption, becoming energy neutral for the public infrastructure, reduction in commute times or improving services like refuse collection. Defining and agreeing to measurable goals is a key milestone in a city’s journey to becoming "Smart."

Another key milestone is making sure that the basic connectivity infrastructure, what we usually call "the network" is up to the task.  A useful “smart city” requires that the city services be connected and automated wherever possible via a strong, resilient, secure network. And while progress has certainly been made – one only has to look at what Barcelona has achieved since the “smart city” ideal was first envisioned – it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do to get this right the first time. There’s a sense of urgency from governments and vendors alike to get smart city solutions up and running, and in that rush those solutions are often proprietary and, with no standards in place, we risk the smart cities of tomorrow being made up of a mish-mash of ecosystems that will only work in silos.

To put this into context, let’s consider one of my favorite visionary functions of the smart city. These days when you drive to work, your vehicle sits for hours on end, doing nothing. But by combining the concepts of the self-driving car with the smart city, that car could become a “shared resource,” being used by nearby businesses to courier packages, deliver food, act as an Uber… dramatically improving its utilization and making you some money in the process because hey, it’s your car and if it's in use you get paid!

For this to work, you need the myriad network functions to be able to communicate with one another; from the application that lets the city know your car is available for use, to the businesses that will leverage it during the day and the networks monitoring its whereabouts on your behalf. The network is the key and it better be highly available, resilient, and secure.

If these criteria aren’t addressed, the vision can never manifest.

But that’s just one issue to consider. What has also arisen is an all-too-familiar challenge: siloed, proprietary networks being deployed by various agencies and enterprises which are both often costly and don’t allow for sharing data among one another. 

If we are to achieve true interoperability of communication between agencies, we need to see some standards with well documented and stable APIs being developed and deployed as these networks are being built. If standards and APIs are in place, we’ll be able to share the data between disparate city groups and functions regardless of whether the networks are private or not.

Service providers hold the key here, and municipalities need to bring them on board to get the most out of the public dollar. A prime example is the recent news of FirstNet selecting AT&T to build and manage the first broadband network dedicated to America’s emergency services agencies that will cover all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia. The current first responder "network" consists of multiple generations of technology, some wireless, some wireline, often locally architected and purpose built and which often can’t interoperate. AT&T’s role will be to “give first responders the technology they need to better communicate and collaborate across agencies and jurisdictions.”

This common-sense level of interoperability should be another of the milestones for cities looking to take that next step into the smart realm. But if the smart city network goes down, becomes congested and lags, or is easily hacked, interoperability becomes an afterthought to experience.

With the many IoT sensors transmitting everything from a few bits per second for simple monitor points to those flooding the network with high-def video, ensuring we have bandwidth and capacity across the city is a necessary first step. 

We will want to squeeze as much functionality out of the existing infrastructure as possible. We'll want to identify and light unused dark fibers across a city. It also means overlaying existing 3G and 4G services with a 5G network, and making sure these networks hit every corner of the city – there cannot be no-coverage areas. Wireless endpoints will be widely distributed across the city and capable of connections 24/7 with redundancy a prerequisite. Ultimately it comes down to ensuring the underlying network is optimized.

It’s why the underlying network should be software-defined and as many of its network functions virtualized as possible. That’s the best way to get service velocity and scale. Network traffic on a Software Defined Network (SDN) architecture can be shifted from less critical services to where it’s needed most – such as a major local sporting event or an emergency which demands constant connectivity. This can be done automatically or managed via intelligent software, with the click of a mouse.

The rush to creating a smart city is understandable; it’s simply a better way for a city to operate. But it’s worth taking a step back, looking at the fundamentals and determining if we know what we are trying to accomplish with "smart." Ensuring, first and foremost, that everything can work together, that we have the needed topology of connectivity, and that we have the capacity available to keep it working. Otherwise, while the smart city of tomorrow might be smarter than most, we’ll always be left wondering if we left some intelligence in the tank.

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