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Building Networked Cities: Leveraging technology to develop smarter urban infrastructure

October 30, 2017
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By Neelesh Kelkar, National Head, Smart Cities, Indus Towers

Enrique Peñalosa, an accomplished Colombian politician, rightly said that “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather it is where even the rich use public transportation”. He is known to have transformed Bogota in the late 1990s from a city that was plagued with traffic congestion to a global role model for other cities in infrastructure planning, especially public transportation. Today, governments across the globe are mesmerised by the hyped and overused term “smart cities”. They are laying out plans for developing futuristic, technologically driven urban centres to improve inhabitants’ quality of life. However, Enrique Peñalosa’s interpretation of a smart city focuses on the bigger picture – a smart city is not limited to automating a citizen’s life but, more importantly, bringing better governance and civic services to its citizens.

Although cities are expanding both horizontally and vertically to support the growing population, limited resource availability to serve the ever-growing population is a concern. Hence, the need of the hour is to develop smarter urban infrastructure that is sustainable and leverages technology as the mainstay to improve the quality of life. Technology is indeed the enabler behind the ideal concept of a smart city, which is to provide better and environment-friendly public amenities in terms of electricity, water supply, sanitation, traffic and transport management systems that positively impact the lives of citizens.

IT and telecommunications play a key role in laying the foundation and becoming the building blocks to realise the ideal of a smart city. By definition, a smart city means a city that is capable of fusing competitiveness and sustainability, by integrating different dimensions of development. There are varied features that a smart city can have. These features depend on the unique aspects of the urban fabric of every city and need to be addressed. In the case of Bogota, it was about enabling smart urban mobility by bringing in efficient and effective urban transportation solutions. Likewise, cities around the world should address aspects like public utilities, transportation and power distribution with innovative and sustainable solutions to be classified as a smart city.

For instance, Hubli, a town in Karnataka, is helping its citizens by alerting them 30 minutes in advance that water supply is being released in their neighbourhood. The town is using a simple yet innovative system that has made the city’s public utility systems smart, and has led to the efficient utilisation of water – a valuable and scant resource, and has dramatically lowered the amount of water wastage. London has become a prime example of a city being transformed into a “smart city” by developing a framework of surveillance infrastructure that would monitor the entire city to ensure the safety of its citizens. In both instances, it is the underlying telecommunications fabric that makes a city a “smart city”.

In the context of building a smart city, the concept of internet of things (IoT), involving extensive use of a network of devices and IT systems on the cloud, has to be at the core of the city’s infrastructure. Embedding smart devices such as sensors into the city’s infrastructure can help collect real-time information, which can be processed through intelligent analytics. The insights obtained from analytics can help in optimising services such as transport systems and healthcare, and ultimately create new channels for citizen-municipality communications. The citizens of a smart city would be able to carry on with their lives seamlessly, without being aware of the underlying network of devices that monitor them and their interactions with various environmental and infrastructural parameters of the city, while they consume the developed services that the concept brings along. To enable such a networked environment, it is required that the infrastructure systems, city equipment, offices and residences are all interconnected with an omnipresent network communication.

To enable ubiquitous network communication and provide a city-wide digital backbone for telecommunications, the telecom tower industry plays a crucial role in designing and building smart cities. Considering the high population density in urban areas, it is not feasible to erect a conventional red-and-white steel telecom tower atop every building to avoid network congestion. Also, mushrooming of telecom towers atop buildings becomes an eyesore and does not blend with the aesthetics of the city’s skyline. To address this challenge, tower companies have introduced innovative “smartpoles”, which, when integrated with the concept of microcells, can become an enabler of ubiquitous network coverage in a smart city environment.

The humble street light poles, traffic light signals and roadside signage boards have been the most underutilised resources of a city’s infrastructure. They hold the potential for mobile service operators to deploy their microcells. By utilising such civic infrastructure and retrofitting them with low-signal microcells, the delivery of mobile network services can be expanded to cover the whole urban area, thus making the network ubiquitous. By leveraging such smart poles as micro telecom towers, the same poles can also be fitted with air quality sensors and surveillance cameras to offer additional functionalities. Unlike conventional telecom towers, which consume a lot of power, the smart poles are designed to operate on less power and have their own power generation source in the form of solar panels.

The Coimbatore Municipal Corporation has collaborated with a leading telecom tower company and has started a pilot project, under which traffic signal poles at major city junctions will be transformed into smart poles. These smart poles are not only fitted with microcell equipment for mobile network services, but also have CCTV cameras for security and surveillance of the surrounding areas. With the increasing demand for aesthetic cityscapes, the smart poles could be innovatively camouflaged in order to blend with the surrounding landscape, for instance, in the form of palm trees. As street light poles or traffic signals are present across the urban area, they are well suited to become a part of the smart grid of IoT devices. This network of connected sensors could be used to monitor traffic load, air quality, etc. so that the civic authorities can take appropriate steps when any parameters cross a safety benchmark.

The Vadodara Municipal Corporation, under Vadodara Smart City Development Limited (VSCDL), has also tied up with a major telecom tower company to provide free limited Wi-Fi service across 450 spots in the city and variable messaging systems to communicate key information and messages to citizens of Vadodara. The Wi-Fi facility will be provided on a public-private partnership model. The smart poles being designed for Vadodara have a provision to mount smart elements, giving VSCDL flexibility and scalability.

Tower companies are going beyond the traditional approach. With innovative strategies, they can help ensure that the digital highway gets enabled to streamline machine-to-machine communication and build smart cities of tomorrow that have better governance, smooth transport services and safe social infrastructure.

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