We recently caught up with Sri Lanka Telecom’s Anuradha Udunuwara to discuss the role of 5G in enabling smart cities and digital urban spaces, ahead of our upcoming virtual event 5GLIVE

What role has 5G played in the development of smart cities?

According to ITU, more than half of the world’s people live in cities today. By 2050, nearly seven in ten people will be living in cities. Cities account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions and 60% to 80% of energy consumption. Rapid urbanization has created additional challenges such as social inequality, traffic congestion, and water contamination, and its associated health issues. This shows that cities need new approaches – smart approaches. 
The moment we hear “smart cities” we tend to think of futuristic, high-tech large cities that are efficient, clean, and a delight to live in. A common perception is that smart cities are all larger cities that are well resourced. The problem with this perception is that it excludes the majority of cities which are not large or well-resourced. However, smart technologies, such as 5G, do have relevance to all cities in that they lead to improvements in quality of life.  ITU describes a smart and sustainable city as an “innovative city that uses Information and Communications Technologies and other means to improve quality of life, the efficiency of operation and services urban, and competitiveness while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects”. This is a very broad description. However, it is important to recognize and accept that smart interventions need not be technology-based, but should be based on addressing the real requirements of the people live in those cities.
With this important background, rather than asking what role 5G has played in the development of smart cities, it is better to first ask the question, what role SHOULD 5G play in the development of smart cities? Before answering that question, let’s see what roles the previous generations of mobile technologies, namely 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G played in cities in the past. We need to keep in mind that the idea of a “smart city” is quite new when compared to the initial generations of mobile technologies. We all know, people’s connectivity in terms of voice, text, video, and access to the Internet are the main deliverables to a city by these previous generations. So it’s more about the people than the city. There were instances where 4G (especially the fixed version) was used for broadband connectivity with Wi-Fi last feet access. However, with 5G, we are bringing in, not only people but virtually any THING and many services with differentiated treatment to different traffic streams. So, in that sense 5G has truly made itself an important part of the communication and connectivity foundation of a smart city. Delivering eMBB, URLLC, and mMTC capabilities with 5G requires high wireless bandwidth, low latency, and massive scalability. This requires high spectrum access and thus short coverage resulting a large number of gNBs/antennas being deployed eventually. 
Although the full scale adoption of 5G is not widespread, many smart cities have 5G capabilities, thus making it one of the foundation platform for communications.
How can operators best collaborate with public sector bodies in delivering smart cities?
Delivering a smart city requires smart thinking and smart investments. Two approaches can be followed: a big bang approach where the entire city is made smart on multiple fronts at once or an incremental approach where a prioritized list of capabilities is implemented gradually. We have seen cities take both approaches. The decision depends on many things, but the cost is one of the important factors, especially for developing economies. This is where PPP (Public-Private Partnership) type of collaborations are important. Operators can very easily fit in here. For example, if we take a deployment of a city 5G network to support smart capabilities, the city authority may provide the space, electricity, ducts, etc. free of charge to the mobile/network operator and in turn, the mobile operator can provide free Wi-Fi for city services while selling other commercial 5G services.
How will 5G continue to evolve in urban spaces?
Any operator, whether fixed or mobile would traditionally make network development/modernization/expansion investments at places where it gives them the best RoI. This resulted in many networks being built keeping the cities and urban areas as centres. For 5G also the case is the same. Deploying communication networks in urban areas, especially in the ones that are densely populated, is not an easy task. Things will be more difficult if the city infrastructure/physical planning is not good. In a way, 5G is the new Wi-Fi, when the last mile radio architecture is considered. Not like the previous generations, where the mobile technology is more for the people than the city, 5G will be more about the city than its people. To achieve smartness in cities on many fronts, including, but not limited to, transport, traffic management, garbage/waste management, utility control, and management, etc., a lot of data need to be collected and analysed. The communication channel for the sensors and actuators is now largely becoming 5G. As a result many devices/things (ex:- vehicles) now come with 5G inbuilt as it makes no sense to have 5G backhaul and then use Wi-Fi for last feet connectivity. Ultimately the benefit will be received by the people of the city.  The evolution will closely follow the real requirements of the city and its people.  
Where does investment need to be prioritised?
5G investments need to be prioritized, especially for the case of smart cities, based on the best RoI. In this regard, there could be large variations among cities. The investments/cost need to be analysed with the benefits. For example, city traffic is a burning issue today. Environmental pollution, wastage of time, accidents, social problems, psychological problems are associated with traffic congestions. Cities and their people will receive huge benefits if this can be properly handled. If 5G is made available along city roads, maybe with antennas fixed on smart lamp posts, accurate data collection with low latency can be used to do data analytics and come out with vital information being made available to people and city authorities.  There could be many V2x applications with x being V-Vehicles, I-infrastructure, etc.
How will smart cities continue to develop in the next 5 years?
The development of smart cities in the next 5 years can’t be generalized. With COVID-19 and its long-term and short-term impacts with huge variations, smart city developments in different parts of the world are going to have different paces of progress. Many smart cities already established without 5G, will surely use the capabilities of 5G to enhance the services and make things more efficient. The ones that are starting or yet to be started will have the golden opportunity to start with 5G from day one. Cities around the world, big and small, old and new are under pressure to address problems and improve the quality of life for their people. Think big, start small and learn fast is the best approach for cities wanting to become incrementally smarter, implementing smart interventions to build healthier cities for happier people.
To hear more from Anuradha do join us at 5GLIVE on the 18th May – tickets are free for telecoms operators and public sector organisations.