Smart infrastructure, in the form of smart poles and smart towers, is a rapidly emerging trend in smart cities across the world. Smart poles, in particular, serve as core components of the infrastructure of a smart city. Their capacity to contain software controls, electronics and sensors that can assist in receiving and transmitting from a pole’s position to the operator’s location are critical in driving demand for smart poles globally.
Meanwhile, increasing levels of digitalisation have propelled the telecom tower industry to work on developments in terms of the structure, design, operations and management of towers. Towercos have started transforming traditional towers into smart towers, which offer real-time monitoring of sites, digitalisation of field operations, predictive analytics for operations and real-time GPS-based mapping for disaster management. In addition, smart towers help in optimising the cost of buildout. Together, smart poles and smart towers give towercos the opportunity to monetise various adjacencies. In fact, smart poles are rapidly emerging as the preferred medium of tower deployment among industry players.
The global smart pole market size is expected to reach $26.55 billion by 2028. In fact, a recent report by Navigant Research forecasts that annual smart pole deployments will increase from 600 in 2019 to 22,000 by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 50 per cent. This represents an enormous revenue-generating opportunity for towercos, which have, till date, barely scratched the surface of the untapped smart pole opportunity.
Meanwhile, industry players are 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.
Smart cities in India, under the umbrella of the government’s Smart Cities Mission, have been actively participating in the deployment of smart infrastructure by installing smart poles and smart towers. In Vadodara, Indus Towers Limited collaborated with Vadodara Smart City Development Limited for the installation of 220 smart poles. These poles will be connected through fibre and integrated with the command and control centre. Meanwhile, in Karnataka, Indus Towers Limited is deploying smart poles powered by Wi-Fi, which can offer Wi-Fi services across an area of around 300 metres. In addition, the company is collaborating with the New Delhi Municipal Council to commission a total of 72 smart poles, of which 55 have already been installed. Further, the erstwhile Bharti Infratel (now Indus Towers Limited) has entered into a partnership with Bhopal Smart City Development Corporation Limited (BSCDCL) to install 400 smart poles in Bhopal. The project is being implemented in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode by BSCDCL in collaboration with the erstwhile Bharti Infratel, Ericsson and HPL Electric and Power Limited. Moreover, Dehradun Smart City Limited is collaborating with Indus Towers Limited to install 60 smart poles and 70 smart towers, and lay an underground fibre network spanning 100 km, in PPP mode.
While a number of smart cities have already started engaging with towercos to deploy smart poles, several others are planning to undertake similar projects soon. For instance, Patna Smart City Private Limited is planning to install 12 metre high smart poles equipped with LED lights, Wi-Fi services, CCTV cameras, pollution sensors, charging points for electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, weather sensors and digital boards. Further, Cochin Smart Mission Limited is planning to invite fresh tenders for its smart pole project, worth Rs 3.1 billion. Under the project, around 500 smart poles will be installed in Cochin in PPP mode. Moreover, the Chennai Corporation is planning to install around 50 smart poles equipped with rain gauges, public address systems, cameras and pollution monitors. Mangaluru Smart City Limited is also planning to install smart poles at 15 strategic locations in the region. These upcoming projects are set to open up a new gateway of opportunities for towercos.
Challenges and the way forward
The major factor restraining the growth of the smart pole market is their high upfront cost compared to traditional poles. Choosing the right location for a smart pole is another challenge. Moreover, the positioning and design of smart pole infrastructure should be such that it can be leveraged by telcos and technology providers. 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. Challenges notwithstanding, the smart pole opportunity is bound to become bigger in the coming years owing to the increasing demand for energy efficient pole lighting systems, the government’s initiatives for smart cities, and the role of smart poles in preventing traffic jams and accidents.