The challenges of 5G and smart cities

The development of smart cities is in its early stage and mobile technologies like 5G and its successors have a huge opportunity and a crucial role to play in this space.

Guest author

June 15, 2020

9 Min Read
The challenges of 5G and smart cities
Digital network connection lines of 5G, Downtown Bangkok City, Thailand. Financial district and business centers in futuristic technology background in smart city concept. periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Pradeep Bhardwaj, Senior Strategy Director and Head of Industry Standards at Syniverse, looks at the considerations that come with applying 5G tech to the smart city space.

2019 may have been the year that 5G networks finally started to get deployed, but 2020 is already bringing a significant number of commercial rollouts of this next generation of connectivity. But there is still a long way to go before we see 5G delivering upon its full promise of enabling market verticals, massive Internet of Things (MIoT), critical communications, public safety and a plethora of other advanced applications and use cases. The technology is still evolving and several hurdles exist that must be overcome. Particularly there continues to be several unknowns about the intricacies of enterprise partnerships for 5G applications, and how they can be properly monetized.

Among the many innovations of the future that 5G will enable, smart cities will be one of the most revolutionary. The development of smart cities is in its early stage and mobile technologies like 5G and its successors have a huge opportunity and a crucial role to play in this space. Internet of Things (IoT) provides the foundation for smart cities and 5G being a key enabling technology for IoT, would be inextricably linked to the success story of these highly connected cities of the future. Much of the emphasis so far has been focused on laying the groundwork: the adoption of the framework that delivers the various essentials/elements of a smart city. But now that the framework is being built, mobile operators are able to launch the next phase of implementation by utilizing the new 5G networks.

While the full potential of widespread 5G is yet to be seen, there is still work to be done in clearing the path for this technology – and early adopters need to consider both the benefits and the challenges of such an approach. Though the immediate impact of higher speed and lower lag time for mobile data offers immense upsides, there are several lesser known concerns around 5G networks that are worth exploring.

Out With the Old LTE, In With the 5G Smart City

Now, in this context when we say “smart,” we don’t just mean connected – we specifically mean data-driven, interconnected and intelligent. And to a certain extent, cities that fit this definition of “smart” already exist. There are city-wide networks of sensors in infrastructure elements like traffic lights and parking meters that collect data, analyze it and apply the results to optimize real-world municipal systems.

When we think of smart cities, we immediately think of massive number of devices (millions and possibly hundreds of millions) belonging to the monitoring sensor networks, low power machine-type communications, smart homes, smart factories, and millions of end-users interacting with all these devices. Amongst the contemporary technologies available today or on the horizon, only 5G can deliver the kind of mass connectivity and very high capacity.

But it’s not truly a smart city until all those high-density systems can talk to one another and to the platforms managing these systems and services. That is where 5G comes in and delivers the essential framework of technologies, capabilities, services and use cases underpinned by technical attributes as such as high capacity, total reliability, ubiquitous availability, highly-responsive connectivity that are so critical for this new world.

For example, many urban areas have started to use automated traffic signals to improve traffic flow. But the new arrival of 5G networks allows us to take that to the next level. The IoT sensor devices in a smart city have diverse requirements for throughput, latency, reliability and mobility. Through the high-speed, low latency and virtualization capabilities of 5G, the network can become the unifying technology fabric that connects these devices to one another – and meet the requirements for advanced, complex and massive IoT deployments, such as Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency communications (URLLC). These basic elements of IoT adoption at a mass scale underpinned by 5G technology would also provide the essential basis for Autonomous Cars and Vehicle-to-Anything (V2X) communications landscape in a few years’ time.

The more data we have, the more accurate our insights will be, and the better our ability to run and manage our cities. Hence capabilities of 5G technology to deliver mass connectivity to enable the deployment of millions of devices for collating and analyzing the data is highly appealing for smart city applications. Using the earlier examples, through such an approach, cities could interconnect traffic data and parking data to automate traffic flows through less crowded parts of the city during a large sporting event – where attendees would have an easier time finding parking. There are several areas of smart cities where 5G can bring innovations such as smart waste management, smart energy management, smart water management, smart grids, and intelligent transport systems. By managing these very significant aspects in a far more environmentally efficient way, 5G would also be able to address some of the environmental challenges of global greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption that a much greater urbanization would bring with the growth of smart cities.

Even beyond these situations, 5G will enable mobile internet speeds that will pave the way for a new generation of highly reliable, real-time, automated services for smart cities. It’s fair to say that this
next-generation technology standard will serve as the basis for effective deployment of extensively interconnected wireless infrastructure needed for a smart city.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without any problems.

More Connections, More Problems

While the high-speed and low-latency of 5G networks empower them to bring new layers of connectivity – this natural increase in devices communicating with each other is also a problem. Regardless of purpose, every new connected device adds to the number of entry points in a network that can easily turn into a cybersecurity liability if not managed properly.

5G technology is secure by design and has several enhanced capabilities for security, but security should never be taken for granted, as the adoption of 5G by multiple industries would increase the attack surface multi-fold and create greater risks. To help combat this, 5G security considerations must be carefully managed, especially in a hybrid environment where 5G and legacy technologies such as 4G and LoRA would operate alongside each other. The connectivity landscape for IoT and therefore smart cities is quite heterogeneous and fragmented, which is hampering the IoT vision. 5G is expected to mitigate this by becoming the unifying technology fabric. The importance of this cannot be understated for smart cities, where the stakes for critical infrastructure failure couldn’t be any higher. Critical assets and networks services must be safeguarded from cyber threats to ensure safety and peace of mind for the populace.

These threats have different origins, from more advanced attacks from educated cybercriminals to more simple cases of human error. Generally, the rise in modern cyberattacks is strongly connected to the public internet’s open access paradigm/architecture and vulnerability. A vast amount of highly sensitive data is channeled through weak networks and clouds not designed to protect data from sophisticated threats. That’s why there is a growing need for private networks isolated from the public internet that can identify and manage assets in a secure way within their own environment.

This problem is further amplified when working with earlier generations of networks – even more so across multiple networks of roaming partners. These disparate network technologies will ultimately have to be able to work together to power continuous connections between connected devices in a large-scale 5G implementation that a smart city would require. There’s also the regulation side, including things like how 5G will affecting roaming nationwide, which will require clearly defined service-level agreements between providers, cities and consumers.

There’s also the question of liability regarding any problem that might arise with the implementation of these new technologies.

Another potential problem facing 5G applications for smart cities is the question of monetization.

Money Doesn’t Grow on 5Gs

Evaluating wide-spread urban deployments that connect many different types of devices and services for these new use cases for smart cities – while the backend required to make that work is intricately complicated, the business partnerships needed are equally complex.

Many smart city solutions will involve deployments beyond the mobile industry’s tried-and-tested bandwidth allocations and the typical enterprise single-siloed device solutions. These solutions will involve multiple stakeholders – operators, network vendors, platform vendors, chipset/module vendors, device manufacturers, application developers, vertical partners, system integrators, who must work together very closely and form effective partnerships to create and deliver long-term value.

Mobile technologies are generally considered to be highly cost-intensive (for both CAPEX and OPEX). So while 5G technology may provide the ideal technical framework for smart cities, its adoption and success in the long-term will be determined by how the deployment costs are managed and how cost models are defined in a way that it is also commercially viable. Furthermore, the various smart infrastructure elements in a smart city would have different underlying deployment and performance requirements therefore necessitating different technical and business models – flexibility would therefore be key in all this.

A recent survey of telecommunications publication Heavy Reading’s audience found that more than half of enterprises and operators investing in 5G services have not yet identified, or are only just beginning to identify, their technical requirements for multi-party billing, reconciliation, and payment. This is a pretty significant roadblock for smart city implementations. Without proper plans for monetization and ensuring financial security, so that every contributor and partner in the value chain gets their fair share of revenue, next generation smart city implementations will struggle to succeed.

The Early Adopter Gets the Worm

Though 5G services for smart cities obviously still have some serious hurdles to overcome, that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth exploring.

It will undoubtedly take time for the technology and services to mature to the point they’re ready for the mass-scale adoption needed for a smart city environment – scale, maturity and reliability are three fundamental pillars for a smart city. 5G will play a key role in smart cities but to properly monetize it and reap the rewards of this revolutionary technology, early adopters of the technology must create a collaborative framework and forge strategic partnerships now.


Pradeep-Bhardwaj-Headshot-150x150.jpgAs Senior Strategy Director and Head of Industry Standards at Syniverse, Pradeep Bhardwaj serves as a senior technology adviser overseeing strategic initiatives to advance the adoption of leading-edge technologies and standards, such as 5G, the internet of things, mobile edge computing, LTE, and VoLTE. Pradeep joined Syniverse in 2005 and has built a career that encompasses more than 26 years of experience with mobile operators and telecommunication companies in the areas of GSM, fixed-line, international, wholesale, international roaming, messaging, signaling, satellite, data, and IP communications. Pradeep’s emphasis is on technology strategy, industry standards, systems engineering, and architecture. Among the leadership roles he has held in the industry, he served as the chairman of the GSMA Hubbing Provider Interworking Group from its inception to its end.

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