Smart cities involve many connected sensors and devices generating large data quantities. When managed well, this data flow can improve transparency and efficiency within the city’s infrastructure.
In practice, the smart city utilizes many connected devices, including:
- Traffic cameras
- Parking garage sensors
- Utility meters
- Public transportation vehicles
Cellular networks and IoT are crucial to realize the smart city vision. They provide dependable and cybersecure hardware and connectivity to make these systems function. As the herald of a new cellular network generation, how will 5G affect the concept of smart cities?
5G Broadband and Beyond
5G provides broadband capabilities that extend LTE’s value. Although this function is advantageous for some smart city applications (e.g., video cameras capturing real-time traffic), other smart city use cases don’t require high bandwidth. Sensors monitoring urban area pollution might send small data packets to a cloud-based platform once or twice a day. In such a case, there’s no need for constant broadband connection — it could have the negative effect of depleting the sensor’s battery.
While the current 5G functionality value is limited for smart cities, it’s set to expand as the cellular standard evolves. LTE-M and NB-IoT are embedded in current 5G operations. However, in 2022, 3GPP Release (Rel) 17 will better enable low power and massive IoT applications, boosting smart city advantages.
Looking at both present and near-future possibilities, let’s explore some 5G smart city applications.
Traffic Management and Analytics
Many cities use or are interested in Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS), designed to limit congestion on roadways. Such systems monitor traffic and use AI and machine learning to identify patterns and change key elements (e.g., traffic light cycles at certain times of the day) to reduce congestion.
Depending on the system, legacy technology may provide adequate connectivity. Yet if a city wants to stream high-quality video for real-time analysis, 5G’s high bandwidth will help. Some cities in China monitor traffic with video cameras. They use multi-access edge computing (MEC) for video processing and 5G for uplink to the cloud-based analytics engine and data lakes.
Smart Utilities and Metering
5G will have a massive impact on utilities, including infrastructure changes. Today’s smart meters tend to be low-power devices with minimal throughput needs. Smart utilities’ power generation and grids will reap immediate 5G benefits. The utility company needs to synchronize power sources for wind farms to keep the ultimate current generated in phase.
5G will provide dependable connectivity for frequency regulation (i.e., an automatic power adjustment to stabilize and synchronize power to avoid outages). Utility companies looking into and implementing private LTE will have the option to upgrade to private 5G networks for added performance and security.
5G for Public Safety
Most first responder cellular systems such as FirstNet in the U.S. are based on LTE technology. There is early support for a public radio system in 5G. Operators are considering devices for FirstNet on 5G bands. To make this function, designers will need to develop devices to support both technologies. Beyond radio communication, there are multiple potential 5G applications in first responder technology, including:
- Connected headsets
- Body cams
- Augmented reality smart glasses
- Vital signs monitors
These devices could benefit from 5G’s higher bandwidth and robust security. 5G can prompt further development of devices to help first responders do their jobs.
Most public transportation sensors monitor the physical position of trains and buses. However, some cities are looking at 5G’s additional benefits. A Swiss company is integrating 5G in their GPS tracking device to provide broadband connectivity for train passengers. Airlines may do this on private and commercial jets to provide onboard connectivity. For automakers, 5G will provide vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications to enable autonomous public transportation.
Smart buildings present a complex scenario with many possible situations and applications. Older cellular technology may remain dominant for several years, except when it’s inconvenient to install wired connections. In those cases, 5G can be considered.
As 5G becomes available, it will be a natural part of smart building infrastructure. When Rel 17 improves massive IoT and low-power sensor performance and price points, smart buildings will benefit from making the shift. Buildings with temperature sensors to measure heat consumption rely on Wi-Fi connectivity, which can be spotty and cyberthreat vulnerable. In a world where 5G is ubiquitous, data flow from those sensors will become much more dependable and easier to secure.
5G will be crucial for the auto industry to enable safe and effective autonomous vehicle operation. Self-driving cars depend on sensor technologies and onboard computers. They must retain constant connectivity with GPS satellites and a tiered cloud-based system. 5G will enable vehicle-to-vehicle communication so self-driving cars can share roadways with one another (and human drivers).
5G will impact the distribution of energy for electric vehicles. Current power networks cannot support vast numbers of electric cars. One possible solution is energy sharing. If a solar-powered charging station is connected to the grid and not in use or not being used to full capacity, it can cogenerate into the grid.
Smart lighting is another use case that will function well with low-power wide-area network technology for the foreseeable future. This application doesn’t have an immediate need to switch to 5G. However, as 5G infrastructure rolls out, some cities may consider dual-usage smart streetlights to provide light and 5G coverage. We will likely see many dual-use applications incorporating 5G with existing technology to provide improved services.
Cybersecurity is a legitimate concern for connected smart city devices. With IoT's lack of regulation and clear security standards, devices can have hardware and software vulnerabilities. City IT officials must choose providers with a proven security track record to ensure security. As it will enable massive numbers of connected devices, 5G will highlight the need for robust security policies. Smart city designers must be vigilant in pursuing secure solutions to offset risks.
While 5G impacts connectivity, it will create space for many innovations to match its capabilities. These innovations will include new devices and software platforms to manage complex analytics. A smart meter might monitor a building’s energy consumption throughout the day and night and adjust prices based on current demand. The meter might then notify the user via the utility’s smartphone app (or interactive screen on the connected thermostat). Diverse smart city applications working in concert will become an integrated system. 5G will enable these additional use cases, enhancing the number of services and escalating their complexity.