Smart city is no longer just a topic about the future. In recent years, Smart Cities have been the subject of governmental and municipal agendas, private initiatives, as well as a variety of large-scale discussions across different industries. So far, however, the definition of the “Smart City” itself has remained fuzzy, while the actual solutions have mostly been limited to off-the-shelf offerings created by technology companies for individual use cases. This has led to the development of multiple vertical solutions that co-exist together in different cities.
At the same time, cities and governments have also attempted to develop horizontal systems in order to unify and integrate solutions and city/citizen data. In this realm, telecom and IT are two focal enablers. Their main role is to provide connectivity and the platform layers, as well as facilitating integration of different subsystems and solutions. In other words, telecom and IT are responsible for enabling the digitalization of the city and the smart solutions therein.
Many basic Smart City applications are already in operation on existing infrastructure. Yet, a better and denser digital infrastructure is still required to enable those capacity-hungry and/or latency-critical use cases on a large scale; such as smart transport, city-wide surveillance, etc. Utilizing Operators’ already existing distributed fixed and mobile networks within cities, the possibilities and needs for providing connectivity do not end here. Making use of telecom manholes for providing local connectivity hotspots, delivering low-latency by providing Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), and even deploying networks on top of public infrastructure are instances of possibilities for operators to take on a more crucial role in this ecosystem.
However, in order to deploy a better digital infrastructure to enable more advanced capacity-hungry, latency-critical smart city applications, Operators would require support from local public authorities/institutions; e.g. by gaining access to public infrastructure such as lamp posts. This can lead to a win-win situation in which operators can densify their networks further, while cities benefit from a ubiquitous connectivity network for Smart City solutions.
But will an omnipresent connectivity network make the cities smart? The short answer is no. As mentioned earlier, there are already many Smart City solutions in operation that utilize existing connectivity infrastructure. And, of course, a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure will facilitate better solutions. Yet, the main concern for cities is the rise of many vertical solutions that do not necessarily connect and integrate together. The question is then who is best equipped to solve such an integration problem. On the one hand, the operators’ DNA makes them best equipped to deliver connectivity and connectivity-related services. On the other hand, the history of operators delivering software and system integration is not promising. The latter is mainly due to the hardship of acquiring talent in this area over software giants; i.e. companies that have managed to brand themselves as heaven for software developers.
A main challenge ahead of smart cities is therefore the integration of subsystems and solutions as well as to provide software-based services that add value. In light of this, we can conclude that the best strategy for Operators would be partnerships with IT and S/I companies. This way, Operators will be able to benefit from the aforementioned win-win situation while keeping their focus on their core business. This is in the end in the best interest of the cities as well. Let’s not forget that such horizontal systems will eventually be controlled by the cities. Due to their chronic lack of resources, municipal authorities will have to run them through participation of different private and public companies, and thus Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) will lead to a successful smartification of their city.