Putting the smart in smart city: Connectivity is key

Smart cities are no longer a futuristic concept. In cities such as Berlin, they are fully operational today and pushing the bounds of how the IoT links business, public infrastructure and people all together.

Many cities are introducing a wide range of connected smart city applications, including multiple installations of surveillance cameras, connected waste management control, lighting, parking, traffic control, public transport, and pollution and weather monitoring. We’re also seeing innovations like remote patient care from healthcare providers, improvements to production line efficiency from manufacturers, fleet tracking and control from logistics firms: the possibilities of the smart city are many, varied and growing.

>See also: Unlocking the potential of the IoT for smart cities – a CTO’s perspective

Yet, the growth of smart cities will slow if resources are not invested in developing the fundamental backbone of these projects: effective mobile coverage systems. This includes 4G and eventually 5G coverage, as well as low-power wide area network (LPWAN) connectivity which can support hundreds of millions of smart city sensing devices at a low cost.

The connectivity problem

However, where opportunity lies, so does adversity. The smart city connectivity problem is split between three major stakeholders: operators must provide a coverage and capacity solutions to multiple sites across a city within a budget; venue owners/businesses must also provide coverage and capacity to ensure they do not lose out on revenue from customers due to poor mobile connection in their facilities; and local governments need to work with both the operators and venue owners to ensure coverage is supplied across the city to develop sustainable, competitive smart city infrastructure.

The urban environment exacerbates the challenges of deploying coverage. Firstly, building materials used to construct densely-populated smart cities often contain reflective and dense materials that can prohibit all Radio Frequency (RF) energy from propagating within many structures. Green building initiatives also have requirements that impact RF signals. They are often attenuated through increased use of Low-E glass (metals in glass) and reflective (foil backed) insulation.

>See also: How to ensure long-term connectivity for smart cities?

Basements and parking garages are further examples, as they are usually surrounded by concrete and rebar preventing good RF signals reaching inside. Equally, while a building itself might be constructed with materials that support strong RF signals, buildings within a dense urban area can often be shielded by neighbouring buildings causing poor coverage.

Is there a solution?

An energy efficient, cost-effective and scalable solution which will support smart city models, IoT and M2M applications and mobile users is needed. Furthermore, networks must be able to provide robust public safety communications for emergency services to prevent harm and keep people safe in these new ‘smart’ environments.

As such, intelligent digital distributed antenna systems (idDAS), based on the C-RAN (Cloud-radio access network) approach, is now emerging as the critical network architecture for supporting the various connectivity needs of smart cities. Digital DAS offers a cost-effective and energy-efficient method of delivering maximum coverage and capacity to almost any environment. This approach will facilitate the growth and development of connected urban environments, with capacity easily and cost-effectively expanded as required.

The C-RAN approach means that the baseband processing to connect multiple sites in a city, is focussed and managed in one central location (‘the cloud’). This removes the cost and complexity of multiple distributed base transceiver system sites, as well as DAS headend sites for each area or venue in a city that needs to be connected. Network capacity can then be cost-effectively distributed to different sectors of a building or areas across a city, in accordance with where capacity is needed at a particular time of day.

>See also: What are the most advanced smart cities in the world?

So, for example, coverage could be prioritised in metro areas during commuter times, shifted to a major business region during the day, then to a stadium to support special events as and when required. This ensures that network capacity isn’t wasted and is optimised at all times of the day, reducing OpEx for the mobile operators supplying the coverage.

The C-RAN digital DAS approach enables multiple mobile operators to be supported by a common shared architecture, delivering huge CapEx savings for each individual operator. Unlike other smart city coverage solutions such as small cells, digital DAS can support multiple operators delivering connectivity over different frequencies.

Digital DAS also suits the neutral host model, whereby a venue will pay for the deployment and management of a network, whilst an operator or multiple operators deliver the connectivity. This offers a new, affordable opportunity for both venues and operators to deliver connectivity to areas of a city that would normally not qualify for operator investment.

Smart cities place incredibly weighty coverage demands on networks. As people and businesses grow increasingly connected to each other and technology through the IoT, service providers need to invest wisely in technology which not only allows for a better experience for all subscribers, but also ensures a robust communications network is in place for the emergency services.


Sourced by Ingo Flomer, Director Business Development, Cobham Wireless


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...