We all know by now that 5G will greatly enhance the mobile experiences of millions of smartphone users. You may also have heard that it will help enhance our homes through the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). But 5G’s benefits will actually go way beyond that, to the point of enhancing the very cities we live and work in.
At a base level, 5G will provide significantly faster data speeds, much higher data capacity, better coverage, and lower latency - or quicker response times - than 4G. This combination of elements will go beyond enhancing our own smartphone usage. It will enable the smart city.
What do we mean by ‘smart city’?
It’s a somewhat nebulous term, but it’s probably useful to say that the smart city concept is the logical culmination of the Internet of Things.
Think of the principle of the smart home, but applied to a much larger canvass. While the smart home is all about multiple low-power digital devices connecting to and communicating with one another to create a more efficiently run home, the smart city is about various kinds of public amenities and infrastructure connecting and harmonising to the same end.
As the Bristol Is Open initiative explains it, “Using data sensors, smart city technologies will be able to respond in real-time to everyday events including congestion, waste management, entertainment events, e-democracy, energy supply and more.”
For example in a smart city, smart automobiles would be able to communicate with the smartphones of pedestrians, as well as traffic lights and other cars to anticipate traffic conditions and even (once automated cars become a reality) avoid collisions. In a smart city, cars would also be able to communicate with the street lighting in the area they’re driving through, so only those roads that are actively in use will be lit, saving the city power and money whilst keeping drivers safe.
To that end, a new kind of mobile network is required that can handle the massively increased data load that this would demand. We’re talking, of course, about 5G.
It should be noted that smart cities won’t require a ‘rip it up and start again’ approach. Rather, they will take the form of the cities we live in now, only enhanced to operate in a much more efficient, clean, and safe fashion.
Existing smart city initiatives
The smart city will only reach its fully interconnected potential with the onset of 5G network connectivity from 2020, but there are already a number of isolated smart city initiatives in operation that offer a hint as to what is to come.
For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Georgia Power Company in the US, as well as Ireland’s EirGrid, all make use of a distribution technology that can detect and smartly throttle fossil fuel-generated power according to fluctuating demand, as well as reacting to the intermittent provisions of more sustainable power sources like solar and wind.
The PowerLine Guardian from San Francisco company Smart Wires utilises an embedded 3G modem from Qualcomm Technologies to achieve this machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.
One simple smart city feature many of us will have encountered is a parking system that communicates with all of a city’s main carparks, then displays information as to free spaces on the city’s main roads.
A more comprehensive view of what a true smart city might look like in ten years time can be gained by considering the city of Yinchuan. Situated in northwest China, and with a population of 2 million, Yinchuan is an early smart city pace setter. Smart waste bins let the local rubbish company know when they need emptying, while air and water monitors will alert the authorities as to any pollution hazards in real time.
Meanwhile, any data that is collected is centralised, and the city’s 432 government authority processes have been whittled down to a single service. This has boosted government efficiency considerably, cutting the number of required staff from 600 to 60 whilst reducing approval processes for things like driving license applications.
It’s worth noting, however, that Yinchuan’s advanced smart city status initially called for a massive increase in the city’s data handling capacity. This required local telecommunications company ZTEsoft to construct an 8000GB fiber optic network, and the installation of over 5000 WiFi access points across the city. These measures simply wouldn’t be practical in most established cities around the world.
This is where 5G comes in.
5G smart cities
It’s anticipated that some 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile networks worldwide by 2020, and a large proportion of the communications that will occur will be between machines rather than humans. In order for a mobile network to carry the weight of the smart city of the future, it needs a fast, responsive, and stable mobile network that can handle a vast amount of data. It needs 5G.
The key reason experts believe that 5G will be able to fulfil these network requirements is its expected support for Massive Machine Type Communications, or MMTC. This means the ability for machines to communicate with one another on a large scale with negligible human input.
In the not-too-distant future, our cities will be smarter, cleaner, and safer places to live. The disparate facilities we rely on will be able to communicate with one another, boosting their efficiency and helping to minimise the hazards of modern city living such as congestion, pollution and excessive energy consumption. At the heart of each of these smart cities will be a 5G network.