The government’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission has accelerated the deployment of communications infrastructure across the country. The launch of the mission has not only helped scale up the installation of towers, fibre, smart poles, etc., it has also led to the uptake of smart applications such as Wi-Fi, video surveillance and security, smart mobility and smart urban infrastructure management. The scaling up of telecom infrastructure, along with the adoption of smart applications, has opened up numerous opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain.

A look at the evolving communications landscape in smart cities and the upcoming opportunities in this space…

Building a fibre backbone

One of the most critical elements of a smart city is fibre-based backhaul. Fibre not only provides the necessary backhaul support for the efficient functioning of smart city networks, but also enables effective handling and transmission of the large amount of data generated from these networks and systems. Services such as Wi-Fi, video surveillance and security, smart urban infrastructure, smart mobility and management are enabled through fibre infrastructure. Other key applications of OFC in a smart city include smart grids for enhanced energy efficiency, smart health ecosystems, and sensor networks to improve public services and infrastructure.

Further, OFC, with its virtually unlimited capacity, is the perfect backbone for the delivery of bandwidth-intensive applications in a smart city. It facilitates the installation of sensors, which are a critical component of intelligent solutions deployed in smart cities. In addition, OFC offers higher network reliability and security, supporting lower attenuation for transmission over long distances.

Recognising the fundamental role of OFC networks in the development of smart cities, several cities selected under the Smart Cities Mission have already started deploying citywide OFC networks while others have started working on ducting for OFC networks, OFC deployment for command and control centres and other OFC-related civil works.

Infrastructure deployment by towercos

Among telecom stakeholders, towercos have emerged as ideal partners for deploying smart poles, expanding the data centre space, and evolving the electric vehicle (EV) charging landscape in smart cities. While towercos are actively collaborating with smart city authorities to deploy smart poles, they are still exploring opportunities in the EV charging and data centre ecosystem.

In the smart pole domain, towercos have started collaborating with city administrations to convert existing street elements such as street poles, light poles and traffic lights into smart poles. In the future, smart poles will be ideal for installing 5G equipment, thus saving the cost for setting up a new pole. These poles can help wireless carriers to quickly and easily densify their network coverage and increase capacity in congested public places. These smart poles will support several emerging applications with 5G such as connected cars, internet of things (IoT) devices, smart homes, and cloud and data centres.

Another growth avenue for towercos is edge data centres. Since tower sites have a steady power supply, ready access to fibre backhaul connectivity and the requisite real estate, and are located at the network edge, they are ideal sites for edge data centres.

The evolving EV charging landscape also presents ample opportunities for towercos. However, the development of EV charging stations in smart cities is currently at a nascent stage. There are challenges pertaining to sustainability, scalability and inclusivity. The authorities are debating on whether to adopt a public-private partnership model or not. Due to changing technology, evolving standards and lack of operations and maintenance by the government, the growth of the EV charging ecosystem is being hampered. Other challenges that need to be addressed include infrastructure readiness, overall throughput time required for charging, and the lack of standardisation in EV batteries.

Smart poles help account for a sizeable share in the ecosystem. Thus, EV charging points can be integrated with street lights to support EV charging infrastructure roll-out in the country. Smart poles can also address the issue of limited availability of charging stations as they are equipped with electricity connections and can easily and cost effectively host EV charging points, besides ensuring safety.

Telco participation

Apart from towercos, telcos have been actively involved in scaling up the communications infrastructure for smart cities. Among telcos, Reliance Jio has executed a contract worth Rs 3,340 million for the Indore smart city. The contract entails a work order for laying OFC, installing smart poles and sensors, and providing Wi-Fi services across the city. Jio is part of a consortium for laying around 600 km of OFC around this Gurugram smart city. Apart from Jio, the consortium includes Sterlite Convergence Limited, Indus Towers and ATC Telecom and Infrastructure Private Limited.

Meanwhile, Airtel has been chosen as the strategic network solution partner by Faridabad Smart City Limited to transform Faridabad into a smart city. Under the partnership, Airtel will work closely with the Haryana government to design and deploy a future-ready high capacity network and a range of connectivity solutions to make Faridabad a digitally enabled city. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited too has been awarded a contract for providing OFC connectivity across Bhagalpur smart city.

Further, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) has recently launched an integrated IoT solution to leverage opportunities in the digital India and smart cities domains. Under the initiative, the company will design and develop solutions for enterprises by integrating various elements of the IoT value chain such as devices and chipsets. The company is targeting the automotive, smart infrastructure, logistics and power sectors with its new business offering.

Collaboration is the key

Net, net, the Indian smart city space is abuzz with activity. While the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the progress of key ongoing projects, smart infrastructure has proven to go a long way in tackling unprecedented situations. For instance, over 45 smart cities converted their integrated command and control centres (ICCCs) into war rooms for real-time data monitoring. They use the government’s data dashboard to provide up-to-date information about the status of Covid cases in different administrative zones of cities. Further, cities like Jabalpur and Surat leveraged their smart surveillance systems for proactive detection and tracking of suspected cases.

India’s smart city ecosystem still has a long way to go, even as the country stands at the cusp of 5G roll-out. However, to ensure that each city can leverage the benefits of the upcoming 5G technology, all key stakeholders will have to formulate a collaborative strategy of deployment. Given the challenges in smart city development, such as the large scale of investment and the complexity of technology integration, it is well beyond the ability of any single entity like the government or a private company to carry it out on its own. Thus, the future of smart cities will involve widespread cooperation among stakeholders across the value chain. To this end, an innovative cooperation model comprising a well-designed revenue sharing mechanism can be developed to drive smart city initiatives in the future. S