The government launched the Smart Cities Mission with the aim of leveraging digital solutions to build sustainable cities. These smart solutions are based on advanced information and communication technology (ICT) tools and require robust digital infrastructure, which can support the various functions of smart cities. This involves active participation of stakeholders across the telecom value chain.
The successful deployment of the various “smart” elements relies on strong and ubiquitous network connectivity, which presents an opportunity for telcos and infracos. According to N.K. Panda, head, convergence business, Sterlite Power, “Communications infrastructure is imperative for the sustainable development of smart cities. The implementation of new technologies like 5G, IoT and M2M will be crucial in deploying intelligent solutions for smart cities. These solutions include high-speed Wi-Fi internet, video surveillance, traffic management, e-governance, waste, and disaster management. Intelligent solutions demand robust and high capacity optical fibre connectivity across the city for their efficient operations. This presents a solid case for the deployment of a citywide OFC network through service providers with proven project execution and maintenance capabilities.”
A look at the key elements of smart city infrastructure and the role of telecom stakeholders in this domain…
Key elements of communication infrastructure
An extensive, robust and scalable communications infrastructure lies at the core of smart city development. This includes a combination of communication and networking solutions including wireless, fibre-based and Wi-Fi technologies. These technologies facilitate the collection, management and interpretation of large amounts of data generated in the smart city and help in the smooth functioning of infrastructure including smart grids, smart homes, smart street lights and intelligent transport mechanisms.
Among wireless technologies, low power wide area networks (LPWANs) have proved ideal for smart cities. LPWAN technologies such as Sigfox, long range (LoRa), LTE for machines and narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) provide low-power and low-data-rate communication over long distances. Tata Communications has rolled out the country’s first LPWAN based on LoRa technology. Further, SenRA, a pan-India LoRa WAN network service provider, has announced a strategic partnership with McWane India to deploy 200,000 smart water meters across the country over the next three years. Under this partnership, 25,000 meters will be deployed initially in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Apart from these technologies, the launch of 5G is expected to play a key role in transforming cities. Ultra high network speeds, low latency, superior network coverage, the ability to support a large number of connections, reliable connectivity, and quick and adaptive response time to support time-sensitive applications, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, make 5G an enabling technology for the smart city ecosystem. A major step up from the existing wireless technologies, 5G will support IoT and its applications, which are the building blocks of smart cities, thereby improving connectivity between infrastructure, devices and people.
Fibre-based backhaul networks
Optic fibre cable (OFC) networks are the backbone of bandwidth-intensive applications in a smart city. Further, OFC facilitates the installation of sensors, which are a critical component of intelligent solutions deployed in smart cities.
The cities selected under the Smart Cities Mission have already submitted budget proposals for city wide OFC deployments, ducting for OFC networks, OFC deployment for command and control centres and other OFC-related civil works. Going forward, there is a need to create open access fibre optic networks for smart cities in order to reduce roll-out costs.
Apart from wireless and fibre-based networks, ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks are a prerequisite for various high-bandwidth, low-latency smart city applications. Wi-Fi offers advantages such as high adoption rates and a relatively low cost of deployment. Meanwhile, new Wi-Fi standards (802.11ah) with frequencies of less than 1 GHz have been developed. These are ideal for smart home devices and appliances that do not require continuous network connectivity.
Several cities selected under the Smart Cities Mission have awarded contracts to equipment vendors and telecom operators to deploy Wi-Fi networks. Sterlite Tech has set up 400-500 Wi-Fi access points across the Gandhinagar smart city. In Nagpur, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) will deploy 136 Wi-Fi hotspots at key locations. The Surat Municipal Corporation, in partnership with Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, has rolled out the Surat Wi-Fi service, allowing citizens free Wi-Fi access for 30 minutes every day.
Opportunities for stakeholders
Since a smart city relies on robust communications infrastructure, the project has created a range of opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain. Operators, towercos, OFC providers and equipment manufacturers have started exploring opportunities in this domain.
For operators, the Smart Cities Mission presents an opportunity to improve revenues at a time when earnings from conventional services are drying up. In view of this, all major telecom operators are vying for contracts under various smart city projects. For example, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) expects to generate Rs 10 billion in revenues from its smart city projects in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), Bhagalpur (Bihar), and Ahmedabad and Rajkot (Gujarat). Further, Bharti Airtel was recently selected as the strategic network solution partner for Faridabad Smart City Limited. 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. Airtel will provide solutions such as MPLS, internet bandwidth and network hardware equipment, which will be used to deploy smart city solutions such as an adaptive traffic control system, citywide surveillance, traffic enforcement system, LED street lighting and smart signage.
In addition, Airtel and Vodafone Idea Limited (VIL) are soon planning to launch their NB-IoT services in India to tap the smart city opportunity. Currently, both the telcos are conducting pilot runs in different circles and are following a partner-led approach to build a complete ecosystem comprising sensors and devices. Airtel has selected around 20,000 sites in Karnataka and Chennai to conduct NB-IoT trials. Meanwhile, VIL has already conducted commercial pilot tests in eight cities including Kochi, Jaipur, Bengaluru and Chennai. In 2018, Jio had launched a pilot in Mumbai to conduct trials for NB-IoT services, and expects to launch its fully commercial nationwide NB-IoT platform in January 2020.
Smart cities have opened up new business avenues for tower companies, many of which are looking to become end-to-end communications infrastructure providers in the selected cities. Towercos can offer a range of solutions for smart cities including passive infrastructure, small cells, Wi-Fi and fibre connectivity. Many tower companies have already started installing smart poles, which ensure better cellular coverage and add aesthetic value. Besides providing Wi-Fi and smart lighting services, these poles can be leased out to network operators and the government for the deployment of surveillance and traffic management systems.
For instance, Indus Towers has collaborated with Vadodara Smart City Development Limited for the implementation of smart city projects. As a part of the collaboration, Indus Towers will install smart poles to provide Wi-Fi services, and host CCTV cameras, digital billboards, environment sensors, public address systems, emergency call boxes, traffic signals and LED lights. The company has already installed 50 smart poles in Vadodara and plans to install another 220 poles over the next two years. In August 2018, the company had installed 55 smart poles in Connaught Place under the New Delhi Municipal Council smart city project. As for small cells, Indus has set a target of deploying 30,000 smart small cells by 2020. Further, a Bharti Infratel-led consortium is executing the Bhopal smart city project. The project involves installation of around 400 smart poles across the city.
OFC providers too are well positioned to leverage opportunities in this space. A number of cities have awarded contracts for the deployment of citywide OFC networks. The Maharashtra government has awarded a contract to L&T to lay 1,200 km of OFC as part of the Nagpur smart city project. Sterlite Tech has deployed OFC networks in the Kakinada, Jaipur and Gandhinagar smart cities. Aksh Optifibre has secured a contract for the development of the Jaipur smart city. As per the contract, it will deploy an OFC network, mobile hotspots, smart lighting systems, a surveillance system, smart parking solutions, environmental sensors, etc.
Equipment manufacturers and technology providers
Equipment manufacturers and technology providers also play a key role in the roll-out of high capacity communication networks for smart cities. Various equipment vendors have collaborated with the state governments on projects such as surveillance, internet of everything centres, water management, smart transport, smart buses, smart kiosks and smart parking.
Ericsson is exploring opportunities in smart metering, public safety and remote health monitoring services in India. Further, Cisco has collaborated with several state governments for smart city projects. The company has established a smart city surveillance system in Lucknow by deploying 280 cameras, 10,000 drones and night-vision mobile vans. In Jaipur, Cisco is setting up digital infrastructure to support connected transport, interactive kiosks, wireless broadband, safety and security services, and traffic management. It is also setting up a command and control centre, and a response control room to manage the city with greater efficiency and effectiveness. Meanwhile, Nokia has partnered with BSNL for the latter’s Smart Telecom Pole project, which entails deployment of a smart pole solution that is integrated with the smart LED lighting system, CCTV cameras, digital billboards and environmental sensors. This smart pole solution will be designed and built to support various smart city initiatives.
The way ahead
Over the past few years, smart city implementation agencies and telecom industry stakeholders have made concerted efforts to increase technology penetration under the Smart Cities Mission. Cities under the mission have successfully expedited work on key ICT-based projects. As of September 20, 2019, integrated command and control centres (ICCCs) were operational in 24 cities. Apart from this, ICCCs are being developed in 73 cities; and smart road projects have been completed in 32 cities, smart solar projects in 24 cities, smart water projects in 28 cities, and smart wastewater projects in 14 cities. Going forward, the government needs to incentivise telecom players to deploy innovative technologies in order to make rapid progress in building cities of the future.