Smart poles are fast emerging as the core components of a smart city infrastructure the world over. These multifunctional light poles are equipped with electronic components, software controls and smart sensors that can receive and transmit data. By hosting mobile broadband small cells, public Wi-Fi access points, smart lighting systems and multipurpose sensor arrays for monitoring air quality and traffic congestion, these smart poles help build smarter cities. While globally cities like Barcelona, Los Angeles and Copenhagen have emerged as pioneers in terms of smart pole deployments, cities in India too have been catching up fast. The government’s Smart Cities Mission has been a key driving force for the escalation of smart pole deployments in the country. Cities like Bhopal, Vadodara, New Delhi and Dehradun have started collaborating with towercos to undertake projects focused on the installation of smart poles, thus opening up a plethora of opportunities in the towerco domain. Going forward, smart pole deployments are expected to surge phenomenally. In fact, a recent report by Navigant Research forecasts annual smart pole deployments to 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.

Key benefits of smart poles

The installation of smart poles offers numerous benefits to city planners and governments. For one, these poles house telecom infrastructure such as small cells and Wi-Fi hotspots that add aesthetics to a city landscape. Further, surveillance cameras installed in these poles help monitor safety, parking violations and traffic, while environmental sensors help monitor the air quality, temperature and humidity. Electric vehicle (EV) charging points can also be installed to promote the use of EVs in cities. Moreover, these poles are connected to centralised command and control centres and help monitor other smart solutions installed in cities. Another key advantage lies in driving energy efficiency as these poles have remotely controllable LED street lights. By replacing traditional sodium lamps with energy efficient LED lamps in smart poles, running costs can be cut by up to 60 per cent. In fact, industry reports suggest that the installation of smart poles can generate around 10-20 per cent savings over conventional lighting poles. Moreover, these LED bulbs last much longer than traditional bulbs, thus reducing maintenance costs significantly. Further, if connected to a mobile network, street lamps can be controlled remotely as an internet of things device.

This means that these can be dimmed at the time of reduced activity and turned on or off as required. Faults in poles can also be identified remotely, thus eliminating the need for physical examination of each pole. Additionally, smart poles have the potential to incorporate numerous add-on capabilities and functions and can easily be modified to meet the bandwidth requirements of new and evolving technologies like 5G.

The towerco opportunity

The installation of smart poles in India gathered pace after the government launched its flagship 100 Smart Cities Mission in 2015. This opened up a new revenue stream for towercos. Towercos participating in the Smart Cities Mission have started collaborating with city administrations to convert existing street elements such as street poles, light poles and traffic lights into smart poles. Apart from mounting telecom infrastructure, these smart poles can also be monetised by hosting equipment for other services such as LED lights, CCTV cameras, public address systems, SoS/emergency call box, billboards, EV charging points and environmental sensors. Another advantage for towercos arises due to priority access to right-of-way (RoW) permissions. In most cities, purchasing RoW is expensive and clearance processes are time-consuming. However, towercos can easily obtain RoW permissions for the installation of smart city infrastructure, which enables them to roll out telecom infrastructure such as fibre at a faster time-to-market.

Deployment status in India

Among towercos, Indus Towers and Bharti Infratel have been front runners in terms of smart pole deployments. In Vadodara, Indus Towers has collaborated with Vadodara Smart City Development Limited, a special purpose vehicle, for the installation of 220 smart poles. These poles will provide Wi-Fi services and host CCTV cameras, digital billboards, environmental sensors, public address systems, emergency call boxes, traffic signals and LED lights. All these poles will be connected through fibre and integrated with the command and control centre. The company has currently deployed 50 smart poles in the region. In Karnataka, Indus Towers is deploying smart poles powered by Wi-Fi services. The pole can offer Wi-Fi services across an area of around 300 metres. Further, the company collaborated with the New Delhi Municipal Council to commission a total of 72 smart poles, of which 55 have already been installed. The project is being implemented under the public-private partnership (PPP) model. Recently, Dehradun Smart City Limited collaborated with Indus Towers to install 60 smart poles and 70 smart towers and lay an underground fibre network spanning 100 km. The smart poles will be equipped with Wi-Fi access points, LED lighting solutions and CCTV cameras and have been installed under the PPP mode. Meanwhile, Bharti Infratel 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 under the PPP mode by BSCDCL in collaboration with Bharti Infratel, Ericsson and HPL Electric and Power Limited. These poles will host 20,000 intelligent LED lights, 400 surveillance cameras and 400 digital signages. Bharti Infratel is implementing the project at a cost of Rs 6.9 billion. The poles will be backed by a 200 km optical fibre network deployed by Bharti Infratel that will connect government buildings and schools. To date, 150 smart poles have been installed. Additionally, the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation has collaborated with a tower company on a pilot project to transform traffic signal poles at major city junctions into smart poles.

Other upcoming projects

While a number of smart cities have started engaging with towercos to deploy smart poles, many cities 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 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 under the PPP mode. Moreover, the Chennai Corporation is planning to install around 50 smart poles equipped with rain gauge, public address systems, cameras and pollution monitors. Mangaluru Smart City Limited too is planning to install smart poles at 15 strategic locations in the region. All these upcoming projects are set to open up a new gateway of opportunities for towercos.

Conclusion

Net, net, the smart pole opportunity in India is only bound to become bigger in the coming years. The execution of the government’s Smart Cities Mission is going to be one of the key drivers for the smart pole market. Further, the finance ministry in the Union Budget 2020, has proposed setting up of five new smart cities which is also expected to give a greater thrust to smart pole deployments. However, towercos would now have to play a more proactive role to convert these emerging opportunities into revenue generating ones.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi