Of late, the telecom tower industry has been seeing a lot of development as far as the structure, design, operatio­ns and management of towers is concer­ned. For instance, the telecom infrastructure industry is rapidly moving towards innovative solutions in an effort to drive op­e­rational efficiency. These include in­ter­net of things (IoT) for asset manageme­nt, drone-based tower inspection, and mo­bile applications for operations and ma­­in­tenance and workforce management. Fur­th­er, towercos have started setting up tow­er operations centres, which offer real-time monitoring of sites, digitalisation of field operations, predictive analytics on operations and real-time GPS-based mapping for disaster management. Smart rental and energy billing is also quickly gaining popularity in the sector. It offers higher accuracy and reduced billing time, customised invoice formats and ease of tenancy movement for telcos.

Moreover, industry players are now increasingly focusing on inculcating sustainable practices for the management of tower infrastructure. Over the past six yea­rs, the global telecom industry has witness­ed a 45 per cent growth in the number of off-grid and bad-grid sites powered by re­ne­w­able energy. As per GSM Association estimates, there are nearly 70,000 towers powered by renewable energy worldwide. India accounts for 60 per cent of this gro­wth, having added over 12,000 renewable energy towers during this period. Further, the annual carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from diesel-powered ge­ne­rators at off-grid and bad-grid towers have been reduced by almost 2.2 million metric tonnes, from 9.2 million in 2014 to 7 million in 2020. India has been responsible for the highest emission reduction. Once responsible for over a third of global em­issions from tower diesel generators, it now accounts for 12 per cent of emissions.

In addition, towercos have started adopting innovative tower designs, which help in optimising the cost of buildout. For instance, smart poles give towercos the op­portunity to monetise various adjacencies. In fact, these smart poles are fast em­erging as the preferred medium of tower deployment among industry players.

A look at some of the recent tower de­ployments, benefits of new-age innovations being introduced in the tower space, key application of smart poles in cities, cha­llenges in the way, opportunities for different stakeholders, and the way forward…

Deployment trends

Owing to factors such as the need for better and more widespread connectivity, the number of towers being deployed is steadily going up. For instance, Indus Towers Li­mi­ted witnessed a widening of its telecom tower base during the quarter ended June 2021. The total number of telecom towers deployed by the company increased from 169,630 during the quarter ended June 2020 to 180,997 during the quarter ended June 2021, witnessing a year-on-year growth of 11,367 towers. The total number of co-locations also increased from 310,627 to 325,355, marking a growth of 14,728 on a year-on-year basis.

Other operators, too, have been pushing the pedal as far as tower installation is con­cerned. In September 2021, Reliance Jio installed 1,529 telecom towers across key tribal villages in Andhra Pradesh to pro­vide 4G coverage to these areas. These in­clude the Araku valley, the Borra caves, Lambasingi and the Kothapalli waterfalls.

Earlier, in January 2021, the Goa government had announced that the state will install 62 new mobile towers as part of its telecom policy. Further, the government added that over 138 mobile towers will be set up in the second phase of the plan. Prior to that, in December 2020, the Mi­nis­try of Communications had sanctioned the installation of 392 mobile towers of various telecom operators in Tripura.

Meanwhile, the industry has also been making positive efforts towards innovating on the design and structure of the towers. For instance, IIT Kharagpur has developed an unmanned aerial vehicle-assisted communication infrastructure for 5G that can serve as an airborne mobile telecom to­wer amid an emergency. According to IIT Kharagpur, the system includes an android-based application fitted to a fleet of drones are programmed to create emergency communication networks using the closest available mobile towers.

Key benefits of smart poles

Smart poles are emerging as the next big thing in futuristic street furniture, making them a key component in the development of smart cities globally. They provide a com­pact, multifunctional public lighting infrastructure, which can also host telecom equipment for connectivity, CCTV cameras for surveillance, environmental sensors, modems for Wi-Fi, public address sy­s­tems, panic/emergency buttons, digital bill­boards, electric vehicle (EV) chargers and several other smart features.

Smart poles work by using small-cell base stations that are housed within the pole. Smart poles act as city nodes that capture data on traffic, weather and pollution levels through an array of sensors. The arrangement is extremely cost-effective, as the sensors can draw power from the light pole and utilise the communication infrastructure embedded on it, thus saving the implementation cost, as no dedicated site is required for providing sensors. This helps in reducing the need to construct multiple urban poles. Further, since they work within a city’s street lighting infrastructure, smart poles make it possible for city planners to densify urban network capacity and coverage at their own pace with minimal disruption. Once installed, IoT capabilities can form the integral building blocks of a municipality’s smart city initiative. Also, smart pole systems have an advantage over conventional street lights in terms of reduced maintenance costs, real-time control and reduced environmental impact.

Use cases and applications of smart poles

An important asset for 5G

Smart poles can help wireless carriers quickly and easily densify their network co­verage and increase capacity in congested public places. The poles can provide val­ue-added services such as public/private Wi-Fi for data offloading. The height of street lights often gives smart poles a stra­tegic advantage in acting like aerial nodes for Wi-Fi proliferation. Smart poles will be ideal for installing 5G equipment, thus saving the cost of new poles. Given their ubiquity, these poles will be used to host small cells for better service proliferation and coverage.

Doubling as EV charging stations

EV charging points can be integrated with street lights to support EV charging infrastructure roll-out in the country. The limited availability of charging stations is one of the key challenges in the development of the EV industry in India. Since smart poles are already equipped with an electricity connection, they can easily and cost effectively host EV charging points. As per Ni­ss­an, a leading original equipment manufacturer from Japan, smart poles can be a go­od solution to overcome cost barriers. Currently, street lights fitted with EV char­ging points are being used in parts of Lo­n­don and a number of other European cities.

Reducing emergency response time

With IoT connectivity and smart pole te­ch­nology, emergency services and first res­ponders can efficiently reduce the emerge­ncy response gap. For example, micropho­nes embedded within a smart pole can be equipped with pattern recognition technology to detect incidents such as cries for help, car alarms, breaking glass, gunshots, or other indicators of potential crimes or emergencies. When a smart pole detects such an event, it can immediately send an alert to emergency services.

Improving air quality

Smart pole sensors can monitor several en­vironmental factors such as fine particulate matter concentration, temperature and humidity to provide a complete picture of an area’s overall air quality. This environmental information can be display­ed on smart poles to help citizens limit their exposure to air pollution. Further, city planners can use the collected data to make better decisions, improving urban air quality conditions.

Traffic monitoring and mobility-as-a-service

Public transit, ride-sharing and micro-mo­bility services are fully integrated into a smart city through IoT connectivity to form a holistic mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) infrastructure that citizens can use to navigate local areas. Smart poles can provide support in ensuring robust IoT connectivity for MaaS. Further, smart poles can be embedded with cameras to observe road conditions. With constant smart pole traffic monitoring, municipalities can accrue valuable data that can help improve traffic flo­ws, guide maintenance decisions and fac­ili­tate emergency crew deployment.

Issues and challenges

Though smart poles offer plenty of lucrative benefits to city administration, their uptake is sometimes constrained owing to certain challenges. For instance, although an important component of smart city de­ve­lopment, smart street lighting is often ignored or poorly planned in cities. So­me­­times it is even bundled with unrelated projects. Choosing the right location for a smart pole is another challenge. Smart city implementation authorities need to keep a lot of factors in mind to ensure that the benefits of smart poles reach the ma­jority of the city’s population. Further, the positioning and design of smart pole infrastructure should be such that it can be leve­raged by telcos and technology pro­vi­ders. Another key issue is the lack of storage capabilities for the huge quantum of data generated by sensors. This, too, causes im­pediment in the widespread uptake of smart poles.

An important factor restraining the growth of the smart pole market is the higher upfront cost associated with these towers compared to traditional poles. Al­th­ou­gh smart poles can save costs in the long term by reducing the energy consumption of street lighting and offering other facilities such as EV charging, pollution sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity, the initial installation cost is very high. More­over, installation of a smart pole needs various hardware components such as dimmers, sensors, co­mmunication devices and co­ntrol systems, as well as costly software. All these co­mpo­nents significantly increase the cost invol­ved in the installation of smart poles compared to conventional poles. This hampers the large-scale adoption of smart poles.

Opportunities and future outlook

Equipped with intelligent sensors, smart poles are capable of capturing vital information, which can later be turned into valuable data. For instance, data pertaining to pedestrian movement and street traffic can be used for developing applications for city planning. Similarly, information pertaining to temperature, humidity, noise, radiation, wind and ambient light can be monetised.

Among telecom stakeholders, towercos have emerged as ideal partners for deploying smart poles. As such, towercos are ac­tively collaborating with smart city au­tho­rities to deploy smart poles. 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. These poles can help wireless carriers quickly and easily densify their network coverage and increase capacity in congested public places. The poles will support several emerging applications with 5G such as connected cars, IoT devices, smart homes, and cloud and data centres.