Cities and urban areas are growing at an unprecedented pace and are having an ever greater impact on human life. In fact the global urban population has grown from less than 1 billion people in 1950 to more than 3.9 billion people in 2014. And according to a United Nations report published in July 2014, the world population living in urban areas will grow to as much as 6.5 billion people by 2050 accounting for around 70% of the world’s population.
Managing urban areas, including mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants is therefore one of the major challenges the world will face in the coming years. And this challenge will be essentially about laying the foundations for sustainable urbanization, preserving natural resources and improving the quality of life and the well-being of the urban population.
As mentioned by the UN, if well managed, cities offer important opportunities for economic development and for expanding access to basic services, including health care and education, for large numbers of people. Providing public transportation, as well as housing, electricity, water and sanitation for a densely settled urban population is typically cheaper and less environmentally damaging than providing a similar level of services to a dispersed rural population. Consequently, the cities represent the greatest opportunities for improving human lives through better infrastructure and innovation, especially for emerging economies.
It is in this context that the concept of the “Smart City” has emerged. One of the key highlights of the Smart City is about using digital technologies, Information technologies and communications services (including machine-to-machine communications) to improve a city’s infrastructure and services. In a nutshell it is a about embedding smart devices like computerized sensors into the urban fabric that collect information in real time, send it for processing by intelligent analytics systems with the results being used to optimize key city services such as transport systems, energy supply and healthcare. In such an environment, a great variety of infrastructure systems, city equipment and home/building appliances such as CCTV, traffic lights, bike racks, car parks, energy meters, elevators and plugs will be connected to the network in what is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).
We are witnessing today many announcements around Smart City projects ranging from greenfield projects such as Songdo city in South Korea and Masdar city in the UAE, to initiatives that aim to transform existing cities into smart ones in a phased approach such as Barcelona, London or Dubai. This trend is expected to accelerate with countries such as China and India planning for hundreds of Smart City projects. These projects are now possible due to the development and commercial affordability of broadband mobile connectivity, digital sensors and big data analytics technologies coupled with cloud computing.
But this doesn’t mean all the technology obstacles have been overcome. Many key challenges remain be resolved, including security and standardization. On the security side, the key challenge is to find ways to face the threat of cyber-attacks that could hit vital systems impacting daily life such as patient monitoring devices, traffic signaling systems or mobile wallets. On the standardization side, the problem is fragmentation of the IoT industry into many organizations and platforms and lack of unified standard, despite wide adoption of some open wireless connectivity standards for smart objects such as ZigBee.
With all this in mind, what is the opportunity that Smart City projects create for Communication Service Providers (CSPs), and what is required to tap into this opportunity? Well first and foremost connectivity and data transport services will underpin most of the Smart City technology solutions. This is the core competence of CSPs, although they will need to invest in their networks and their software management systems to cope with a proliferation of smart devices (orders of magnitude more than current smartphones) and the new traffic patterns they create. Most importantly networks will have to deliver significantly higher Quality of Service (QoS) and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to cater for critical services in healthcare or transport domains.
But Smart City projects offer an opportunity for CSPs to add more value and play a role beyond the traditional data pipes.
First the CSPs have trusted brands, and have a long experience dealing with cyber-security threats, so they will be well placed to provide security and billing solutions for Smart City projects.
Also, CSPs have the infrastructure and a unique experience in monitoring and managing the performance of complex networks, so this places them in an ideal position to supervise, monitor and manage the performance and quality of service of new smart city domains such as smart buildings.
And beyond this there is a real opportunity to leverage the cloud computing and big data analytics technologies to offer value added solutions. In the context of Smart City and IoT as a whole, there will be a huge amount of data that will be collected and that can be analyzed for various purposes. The CSPs have the connectivity and billing infrastructure; if they invest in setting up data centers with the right computing capabilities, and implement analytics solutions linking their network data with the wider IoT ecosystem they will be in a unique position to offer value added solutions to Smart cities, as well as a toolbox for third parties to create their own solutions.
But the Smart City ecosystem is complex with various stakeholders including real estate developers, utilities, municipalities, system integrators and technology providers to name a few. So to tap into this promising opportunity CSPs will have to transform their current organizations, business models, networks and IT systems to act as true value added solutions integrators across this complex ecosystem. I call this the 3rd wave of CSP transformation after the mobile transformation wave and the data and video services transformation wave. Failure to do so will mean the CSPs will be confined to the role of Smart City data pipes, which is the scenario the majority of them want to avoid.