On June 25, 2015, the government la­un­­ched its ambitious Smart Cities Mi­ssion to accelerate digitalisation in the country. The mission has helped scale up communications infrastructure including towers, fibre and smart poles, and increased the uptake of smart applications such as Wi-Fi, video surveillance and security, smart mobility and smart urban infrastructure management. This scale-up of telecom infrastructure along with the adoption of smart applications has opened up se­veral opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain. Telcos, towercos and technology vendors alike are jumping on the smart city bandwagon to leverage up­coming opportunities in the space.

A look at the evolving communications landscape in India’s smart cities and emerging opportunities in this domain…

Components of smart cities

The objective of the smart cities initiative is to create sustainable and inclusive cities, im­prove quality of life, and provide a clean and sustainable environment. The core infrastructure of these cities will include smart solutions such as data-driven traffic management, intelligent lighting systems, smart grids, smart applications and technology solutions. The key applications of optic fibre cable (OFC) in a smart city include smart grids for enhan­ced energy efficiency, smart health ecosystems, and sensor networks to improve pu­blic services and infrastructure. Digi­ta­lly enabled tools and solutions can help solve urban challenges, undertake efficient city management, and foster transparent and accountable governance.

Role of integrated command and control centres

Smart cities have an integrated command and control centre (ICCC) depending on the city’s capacity and resources. An ICCC serves as the nervous system of the municipal ecosystem and helps in monitoring city operations, assets and resour­ces. It can also identify incidents, coordi­na­te respon­ses, and predict future trends and events for long-term planning.

In fact, these ICCCs played a key role in collaborating with concerned government departments while dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. They helped manage the crisis and offered services including dedicated lines for handling hospital bed re­quests and monitoring Covid-19 hot­spots, oxygen capacity, availability of hospital beds, number of patients in ICUs, and ambulance services. For instance, over 45 smart cities converted their 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.

As of February 11, 2022, 75 smart citi­es had set up ICCCs to monitor the environment/traffic/waterlogging/law and order situation, which will facilitate decision-ma­king and daily operations. Accor­ding to the government, all 100 smart cities will have operational ICCCs by August 2022.

Establishing a robust fibre infrastructure

All the components of smart cities and ICCCs require a critical element, that is, fibre-based backhaul. Fibre not only provides the necessary backhaul support for the efficient functioning of smart city networks, but also enables the effective handling and transmission of the large am­ou­nts 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. 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 ICCCs and other OFC-related civil works.

Infrastructure deployment by towercos

Apart from fibre, smart towers, smart po­les, data centres and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure are the key components for establishing smarter cities of the future. In this regard, towercos have em­erged as ideal partners for deploying smart poles, expanding the data centre sp­ace, and evolving the 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 the 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 new poles. 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, 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.

Telco participation

Apart from towercos, telcos have been ac­tively involved in scaling up the communications infrastructure for smart cities. Am­ong telcos, Reliance Jio has secured a contract worth Rs 3,340 million for the Indore smart city. The contract entails es­tablishing smart poles including CCTVs, en­viron­mental sensors, Wi-Fi, OFC, in the pu­blic-private partnership mode. The work order for the contract has been issued. Fu­rther, Jio is part of a consortium for laying around 600 km of OFC around the 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 the Bh­a­ga­lpur smart city.

Further, Vodafone Idea Limited’s (Vi) en­terprise arm, Vi Business, has been ap­pointed as the implementation partner for the Guwahati smart city initiative by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). Under this partnership, GMC will provide Vi’s intelligent mobility solutions to Guwahati Municipal Swatch Bha­rat workers. Moreover, Vi has partnered with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for a pilot project to test 5G-based smart city solutions, as part of its ongoing 5G trials on government-allocated 5G spectrum. The co­mpanies will collaborate to test and va­li­date 5G use cases built on internet of th­in­gs, video artificial intelligence (AI) techno­logies leveraging L&T’s Smart City pl­a­t­­form Fusion, addressing the challenges of urbanisation, safety and security, and off­er­ing smart solutions to citizens, in a pilot to be conducted in Pune.

Cybersecurity and city surveillance

Since a smart city uses various technological solutions and digital infrastructure me­diums, securing the infrastructure is im­portant from the security perspective. Sm­art cities rely on sensors and network-connected devices and systems that generate large volumes of data, which are vulnerable to hacking by cybercriminals who can steal confidential data, shut down access to ess­e­ntial resources, and gain illegal access to se­cu­rity cameras. The data needs to be adeq­u­ately protected. Creating and building a secure smart city requires strong policies that incorporate processes and te­chnologies from both the government and industry into the ov­erall strategy pro­cess. The growing complexity and magnitude of risks in su­ch an in­­tegrated communications struc­tu­re re­qu­ir­es an unprecedented level of collaboration bet­ween public and private stakeholders.

Collaboration is the key

Net, net, India’s smart city ecosystem still has a long way to go. As the country stands at the cusp of a 5G roll-out, all key stakeholders will have to formulate a collaborative strategy of deployment so that each city can leverage the benefits of the technology. Thus, the future requires a widespread coo­peration-based strategy involving all stakeholders across the value chain. This strategy can be based on a mutually beneficial me­chanism that promises further digitalisation of smart cities while securing the entire communications infrastructure that forms the bedrock for these cities.