The impact of 5G on future cities
I wanted to reflect on a discussion panel I chaired recently, convened by Juliet Media under the 5G Realised banner with the title The Evolution of Smart Cities to Smart Communities and the Role of 5G.
I was joined on the panel by three very well informed people with very relevant experience to comment on the subject:
- Julia Thomson - Smart City Policy Lead, Greater London Authority
- Mika Hakosalo - City of Stockholm
- Phil Siveter - Head of UK and Ireland Enterprise, Nokia
My personal interest in Smart Communities has grown over quite a few years, with the emergence of the Internet or Things and increasingly capable networking technologies, but perhaps more importantly people who run places (not just cities) getting smarter about how they go about that.
Our team in the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport designed and launched the Urban and Rural Connected Communities competitions to explore the potential for 5G to make a difference to both types of communities. The competitions resulted in the West Midlands 5G programme, and seven rural projects across the UK, which are all very much in flight.
The Smart Cities concept seems to have started out life as a big-tech idea that would require ubiquitous networks and sensors throughout the city fabric, collecting vast data stores that needed a lot of processing power - and of course driving sales of lots of IT and networking. In some geographies that has led on to a dystopian vision of population control, which seems to me the polar opposite of what the objectives should be.
Smart City Definition
I started the discussion by asking the panelists to give their definition of a smart city or community, and was pleased to hear all three putting their citizens, and improving their experience of living in a place at the heart of their agendas.
Mika said Stockholm sees sustainability as a critical component of achieving that. A clean, less congested, less polluted environment is more attractive to live and work in, and makes people happier as a consequence. But he also made the point that just adding technology on its own isn’t enough - they have focused just as hard on their operating processes and educating their staff to embrace the positive changes they need to make.
Julia explained the Smarter London Together initiative, which Theo Blackwell kicked off with the objective of using data and technology to make a positive impact for all who live, work and study in the capital - very much in the technology for good theme.
Phil developed Mika’s point about the importance of improving citizen services, but noted that this must be done taking a horizontal view of those services and not falling into the trap of fixing each individual service in isolation - common, collaborative shared facilities need to be enabled to improve ALL services.
5G for Citizen Services
We then moved on to look at which citizen services city leaders should prioritize for digital intervention/transformation, and why.
Julia put Planning at the top of her list (unsurprising as she is a planner by training), where the GLA is building a comprehensive planning database which will greatly help Londoners to better understand the process and how they can interact with it. By adding live feeds from building management systems and other infrastructure brings the performance of that infrastructure to life for citizens and planners so they can all see precisely where the city is meeting compliance or not. Major planning documents like the London Plan are around for a long time; through dynamic performance data architects, designers and planners can track how their buildings and interventions are really operating and affecting citizens, as well as how the city is doing against that plan overall.
Mika sees his highest priority in transport systems because they have the biggest impact on carbon emissions and sustainability, but also talked about how Stockholm has approached prioritisation. Sensors are pretty cheap to buy, but the whole life cost of operating them to a reliable quality standard is much higher and relies on significant capabilities to make that possible. So they have looked for organizations that already have at least part of those capabilities and facilities, together with a real business need for service improvement. One example is the 5-600 schools in Stockholm which now use a sensor network to monitor temperature, humidity, air quality, congestion and safety for pupils and staff using a common platform to do that. They also have understood that some city service providers need access to data but are happier to pay to access data other service providers have captured rather than to have to set up their own data service.
Stockholm sees sustainability as a critical component for improving their citizen's living experience
Phil said Nokia had recognised that many cities had faced challenges in their attempts to deliver digital transformation programmes which had started by focusing on improving a small number of individual services and foundered either because ubiquitous connectivity was not sufficiently in place, or because they failed to implement shared building blocks to allow rapid service creation or improvement. Graz in Austria has made the decision to implement city-wide 5G for this specific purpose. That approach should allow the idea of a city-as-a-platform to be developed and rapid scaling of many services. Infrastructure has to come first, services follow.
Julia quoted Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer, who often talks about ‘fixing the plumbing’ to enable fundamental transformation to happen driven by the many shared data stores London has now consolidated and opened. The Connected London team is working with boroughs across London to help them improve their ‘plumbing’, taking common approaches to overcoming barriers to planning and providing sites for full-fibre digital infrastructure to be sited and support 5G, and working with Transport for London on their concession tender.
Phil brought up the potential for investors and mobile operators to come in and put capital to work in places that have prepared well for them to do so. I’d also bring up the West Midlands 5G (WM5G) Infrastructure Acceleration work in this context, which has really made a difference to the roll-out plans of mobile network operators in their region, which has resulted in seven local authorities working with one common process for planning and permissions. It has also built a comprehensive digital map of the region showing coverage, sites and assets which allows accurate and timely decision making.
It is also clear that alignment of projects and investments with the strategic plans of the aspiring smart community is also a critical success factor - that helps marshal resources, political will and hearts and minds of citizens, and overcomes local concerns and turf wars.
5G and Global City Projects
Next we talked about global city projects progressing the adoption of high-capability networks to support the services you have identified. Where does 5G appear in that context?
Phil - it’s hard to overstate the importance of 5G and the difference it will make to all our lives over the coming years - it will be a complete game-changer. We are seeing MNOs making announcements almost daily now on new 5G roll-outs, and seeing place-makers, both urban and rural, taking on decisions to build and own their own networks themselves. Ofcom’s spectrum liberalisation changes that allow local and shared spectrum licences mean the UK is in the leading pack of nations to take such steps, and this is igniting the demand for Private Mobile Networks, both LTE and 5G.
Mika - Stockholm has operated its own, open fibre network that supplies over 95% of homes and building in the Stockholm region. When 4G moves to 5G, we’ll look at our traffic signals to enable dynamic traffic management and share data with drivers to help them adapt their habits to the benefit of all. Ericsson has its own private 5G testing environment in the city, including a self-driving bus enabled by 5G. This kind of capability really helps citizens and city managers understand the potential of 5G and drives informed demand. Edge computing goes hand-in hand with 5G. Mika plans to connect 500 street crossings as a priority - again mirrored in the UK by WM5G plans for a region-wide traffic sensor network, and the newly funded Smart Junctions project in Manchester from our 5G Create competition.
Phil - scale and latency will generally drive 5G use cases - and that’s why transport and connected/autonomous vehicles are often cited, with millions of vehicles and traffic management infrastructure interacting, very small margins for error, and critical safety at stake. Similarly manufacturers everywhere are looking to 5G to drive productivity, reduce costs and create competitive advantage across their factories and supply chains.
While we were talking Juliet Media were running a poll of our audience members asking which services they thought most likely to be adopted first. The top three were:
Health and Care services
-We clearly had a well-informed audience.
I asked our panel which policy initiatives city and national governments are making to maximise the value of investment in digital services, and should cities own and operate networks? Do private networks play a role, or is this the domain of telecoms operators?
Mika referred to the strongly collaborative relationship between the city which owns and operates the underlying full-fibre network, working closely with MNOs to ensure there is very good coverage across the city. This is a very democratic leveller - it doesn’t matter where you live in Stockholm, you can have excellent fibre connectivity at an affordable price for all. That also meant that when COVID struck everyone could switch seamlessly to home-working, and even use high-speed mobile video streaming on the move in their cars (not while driving of course!). That city network makes for very low-cost and secure sensor deployment since the city installs those on it’s city region-wide intranet running over that same fibre. New services are easy to add on top of that layer - for instance a new AI service to control ventilation in schools was introduced based on all-existing infrastructure. Stockholm owns and runs that network themselves and is in control of all the investment and strategic decisions. They would not consider doing the same with cellular, but would look at radio networks for backhaul services.
Phil sees a range of approaches across the world, with rural community wireless broadband especially emerging, and particularly in support of closing digital divides over 25-30 year investment cycles. No one-size-fits all business cases, but a lot of potential.
Julia is envious of the Stockholm full-fibre coverage, where London is at probably under 20% today, but is working hard with investors to radically improve this. The Mayor’s COVID recovery plan underscores the importance of very good digital access, devices and skills as enablers of economic recovery, and of maintaining the ability of citizens to work remotely, and to work and study safely when they cannot. Other use cases and where citizens might first experience 5G could be gaming, or how they interact with high streets, remote and distributed working environments. Note that there are well over 150 places in the UK which already have live 5G networks, primarily cities, but more and more private networks are also being built - some in DCMS-co-funded trials like the BAE factory making fighter jets. Julia also noted that we already use digital to supplement many services like health and care, but is wondering whether 5G might be the point at which we can flip so that the majority of those services can be delivered digitally, with the service coming seamlessly and efficiently to citizens without clogging up road traffic and public transport.
Smarter London Together initiative using data and technology to make a positive impact for all who live and work in London
We also talked about 5G in the context of other advanced networks, and the direction of converging technologies - but came back to the need to continue to drive towards an underlying full-fibre infrastructure layer to get started.
There was a good discussion about the incentives for corporate citizens to use the digital fabric to behave more sustainably - Mika talked about Stockholm’s open approach to making testbeds available at low cost for companies to bring their investments and their use cases to market efficiently. Julia noted London’s Mayor’s goal to double the size of the green economy by 2035, and 5G and transport will play a big role in achieving that.
I asked the panelists where and when they expected the majority of citizens to first experience 5G, and answers ranged from home to schools, trains or buses, from high streets to hospitals - but particularly in demanding or congested sites, where machine control is critical or at a premium, or to support working anywhere - so a very wide range of venues and experiences are clearly in the pipeline, and not far off for many of us.
Julia shared here thinking on the changes COVID has already driven and accelerated access to online services - whether it be social care, planning or some other interaction with the local authority, all these have become much more likely to be accessed online since the pandemic struck. She wondered if 5G could push that even further so that access to all those services might be digital first or by default.
In conclusion, it seems that from our panel members at least, our future cities are likely to be more interactive and empathetic with us as citizens, less congested and polluted, more economically vibrant and cost less to run. 5G will play a key role alongside other technologies - ubiquitous fibre, edge-cloud, sensor networks, AI and advanced data management will all be combined to create applications that are configurable to deliver connectivity, capacity and functionality wherever it is needed at optimal cost. We are not there yet, but we are on a pathway to achieve better, smarter communities - and can get there faster if we continue to collaborate and share learning widely.