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5G and the Smart City - Early use cases are now emerging

As of 2020 Smart Cities are under more pressure than ever to create a safe, efficient, productive environment for citizens given the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of lockdowns, travel restrictions and massive numbers of infections many local and governments have struggled to cope and in historically have turned to technology as a way of coping with challenges caused by pandemics. Pandemics can actually be a source of innovation in terms of Smart City technology dating back to more than one hundred years, as for example the city of London only installed its Victorian sewer system after an outbreak of cholera claimed 30,000 lives and modern ventilations systems quickly gained adoption due to the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic. In the era of the COVID-19 outbreak the world is again seeing innovation in the Smart City space as technologies such as robots, drones, cloud computing and biometrics are all helping to curb the spread of the virus, and many of these technologies are likely here to stay. (1)

At the same time 5G mobile networks are now being deployed at a rapid pace over much of the world, and the high bandwidth and low latency connectivity that will come with these networks is already emerging as a powerful tool which Smart Cities can use to take their service offerings to the next level. According to the GSM Association there are now 113 live 5G networks in 48 countries, with the most advanced network deployments in the world being found in the US, China, South Korea, Japan, the Gulf states, Australia, and parts of Europe. Coverage is still limited in most of these countries and while many Smart City plans were suddenly postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there still has been significant progress towards integrating 5G connectivity into Smart City solutions. (2)

For these reasons there has been increasing utilization of 5G networks in Smart City services. Some of the most notable examples include:

Piloto 5G Catalunya – Barcelona, Spain (3)

The Spanish city of Barcelona is often lauded as one of the leading Smart Cities in Europe and is also the host of the annual Global Mobile World Congress and hence it should come as no surprise that the city has one of the most aggressive roadmaps in the world for the incorporation of 5G connectivity into its Smart City planning. The local government under the guidance of the Secretary of State for Information Society and Digital Agenda (SESIAD) has developed a ‘Piloto 5G Catalunya’ program which has secured funding for 5G projects within the city in areas such as education, industry, commerce, tourism, transport, and safety and emergency management. The program will formally begin in September of 2021 and continue until December of 2022. Some of the specific services that the program will develop include 5G for broadcasting, distance learning, smart manufacturing, connectivity for tourism and connected vehicles.

5G Smart Transportation – Kelowna, Canada (4)

In June 2020 Canada started its first 5G Smart City project in the city of Kelowna, British Columbia. The project is focusing on improving transportation systems in the city, which was identified by local officials as a top priority. The system uses LiDAR sensors which have been installed at traffic intersections which subsequently have been connected via 5G. These sensors will monitor pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the city feels that using 5G LiDAR sensors will enable them to collect better data as LiDAR can operate in low light and poor weather conditions, hence surpassing the capabilities of previously used 4Gsolutions. This data will then be utilized by city officials to make better decisions regarding overall traffic management in the city. Importantly this data will be shared via cloud computing with students from the University of British Columbia who will use this data in their research and collaborate with local government officials on ways to improve transportation infrastructure in the city.

5G Smart Facility – George Best Belfast City Airport (5)

5G connectivity is being increasingly used in facilities to make them smarter and more secure which has become a priority especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. One recent example can be found in Northern Ireland where the George Best Belfast City Airport will install enhanced on premise 5G connectivity in the first quarter of 2021. Airport officials believe that by doing so they will enable a variety of new services for the facility including intelligent automation, energy efficiency and enhanced security. According to local officials, one of the key benefits of deploying 5G within the airport is it will allow them to dispense with miles of physical cabling which is currently required for everything from connected cameras to baggage handling systems. Looking farther out, George Best Belfast City Airport views 5G as a key technology in terms of Digital Transformation of their business, as they are also exploring new revenue streams using a 5G network which could eventually transform the facility’s IT department from a cost center to a revenue center.

Private 5G Network for Smart City Services – Liverpool, United Kingdom (6)

The city of Liverpool in the United Kingdom has taken an innovative approach to incorporating 5G into its Smart City services, as it has built a private 5G network for use primarily for health and social care services. The network seeks to reduce “digital poverty” and offers free connectivity for social care, healthcare, and education in selected areas of the city. Services such as these are now more important than ever as given the lockdowns resulting from COVID-19, many citizens are only able to access healthcare and education remotely.

The 5G network is also expected to deliver benefits which surpass the capabilities of 4G networks. For example, the city was running a telemedicine program to monitor patients with leg ulcers with LTE, but the image quality was not good enough for healthcare workers to make accurate diagnoses, but it is believed that 5G will be sufficient. There is also significant business model innovation taking place as part of this new 5G network. The local government is now only paying a flat fee to run the network, and hence no longer needs to procure and manage thousands of SIM cards which was proving to be very expensive. This program will run until March of 2022, and if successful will serve as a blueprint for future 5G private networks which will manage other Smart City services.

What Does the Future Hold for 5G and Smart Cities?

Smart Cities are under more pressure than ever amidst the COVID-19 pandemic but at the same time many new technologies have emerged which are helping to stem the spread of the virus and 5G is one of these key tools. While 5G deployments are still in their infancy, early use cases are now emerging by first-mover smart cities in areas such as smart transportation and healthcare with more applications sure to follow. Many of the earliest examples of 5G Smart City services have already found benefits from the high bandwidth and low latency capabilities of 5G which have enabled next-generation Smart City services. It has already become clear that governments will need to take a more proactive approach to enable 5G Smart City solutions, and private-public partnerships are vital to make this a reality. It has also become clear that new business models will be required to adequately care for citizens, many of whom are suffering as a result of COVID-19.

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(March 5, 2021)