The vision of the government’s Smart Cities Mission entails building cities that promote economic growth on the back of technology. The key smart solutions offered by these cities are in the areas of healthcare, mobility, technology, infrastructure, energy, governance and education. These “smart” applications require ubiquitous connectivity, which needs robust telecom infrastructure such as towers, fibre and backhaul networks.

Need for building smart infrastructure

The development of network architecture for smart cities relies on four layers – physical, network, device and application. The physical layer comprises existing fibre and street furniture in smart cities. The network, device and application layers are built on top of the physical layer to create sustainable smart city infrastructure. Therefore, the key is to construct a smart physical layer. This requires:

  • Effective use of existing city infrastructure such as light poles and fibre
  • Creation of a meshed fibre network comprising existing fibre to meet the growing connectivity requirements
  • Installation of intelligent telecom infrastructure without any duplication to offer seamless voice and data connectivity
  • Setting up of Wi-Fi hotspots in high footfall areas to effectively monetise Wi-Fi networks.

Role of towercos

The three key expectations from a smart city in terms of infrastructure are the provision of 100 per cent mobile coverage through a 100 Mbps internet backbone, Wi-Fi availability across all public places and educational institutions, and optic fibre cable connectivity to every building and home within the city. Further, as 80 per cent data traffic is generated indoors, the deployment of in-building solutions (IBS) has become important.

Towercos can play a significant role in fulfilling these infrastructure demands. In fact, they are well positioned to leverage business opportunities through the deployment of macro towers, street pole solutions, fibre networks, IBS and Wi-Fi services. They can look at new business opportunities arising from installing cameras for security surveillance, LED lighting and smart metering. Besides the government, towercos can partner with airports, hotels, hospitals and large campuses for offering IBS/Wi-Fi services.

Key challenges

It has been four years since the launch of the Smart Cities Mission in 2015. However, the programme largely remains a work in progress as several challenges continue to impede the installation of telecom infrastructure. While smart cities call for the provision of Wi-Fi services in public places, monetising outdoor Wi-Fi networks is an uphill task. Insufficient backhauling for Wi-Fi services is also a key problem that is preventing large-scale roll-out. Unless there is fibre backhaul in the last mile, issues in providing Wi-Fi services will continue. Obtaining right-of-way (RoW) permissions for laying fibre in smart cities is another challenge.

Today, most smart cities in the country are brownfield. There is hardly any greenfield smart city development. In this scenario, a major bottleneck relates to the conversion of an older city into a smart one and the installation of fibre. This is primarily because each area falls under the jurisdiction of a different authority and companies have to approach multiple authorities for fibre installation.

Recommendations for the future

Going forward, the transformation of existing cities into smart ones would depend on how quickly the challenges impeding the mission’s growth are addressed. A number of steps can be taken to speed up the progress of smart city projects. The establishment of a nodal agency and a single-window clearance mechanism for installing fibre infrastructure is a must to streamline the approval process. Further, the government’s request for proposal for smart city projects must be based on open technologies. This would enable companies to manage multivendor environments. The development of smart cities should be undertaken by leveraging the existing city infrastructure of towercos, operators and the government. Another key step is to formulate long-term contracts with a minimum duration of 25 years for the creation and maintenance of infrastructure under smart city projects, as investment in such projects is extremely high and can be monetised only over a period of time. There is also a need to work out a win-win financial arrangement between the government and the partner companies to drive investment in the space.

Based on a presentation by Biswajit Patnaik, Chief Sales and Marketing Head, Bharti Infratel