5G: The building block to successful smart cities

Marie Ma The time for smart cities is now. As urban areas begin to rise out of booming and emerging economies, so too are the strains on public facilities to keep up with an increasingly dense population. We have seen many cities across the world—from Barcelona to Jakarta—embark on their smart city journey to address the challenges of urbanization.

The Hong Kong government took its tentative steps last year towards building a smart city when the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) Allen Yeung commissioned a consultancy to formulate a smart city blueprint for the nation. The aim of this blueprint is simple yet sorely needed: to enhance city management and improve the quality of living, sustainability, efficiency, and safety of a city that is known to be one of the world’s most densely populated city in the world. Just recently, Yeung shared a preview of the blueprint, which will be completed by June 2017.

However, the cornerstone of a successful smart city lies not in futuristic applications or cutting-edge hardware but in wireless mobile connectivity. Mobile World Congress 2017 was a telling sign, with every major mobile technology provider touting the latest 5G innovations predominantly centered on driving smart city developments.

Making smart cities a reality

Cities often begin their smart city transformation by implementing Internet of Things (IoT) technologies into its fabric. Among the common projects are adaptive street lighting for energy savings and smart traffic systems designed to alleviate road congestions.

However, transforming a city into one that is truly smart might require knitting often-silo projects into a centrally coordinated platform. Some of the clear benefits of having common platforms are improved synergies within and between cities to facilitate effective data collection and analytics, and ultimately boost existing public services.

We can only imagine the massive connectivity requirements a truly connected city need. Smart city projects are already straining the current wireless network infrastructure, and having 5G as the foundation for large-scale IoT deployments is a welcome respite for legacy networks.

More importantly, its low latency and high bandwidth is perfect to support existing and upcoming time-sensitive and data-intensive applications—such as driverless public transportation and real-time asset monitoring—to help cities take the confident step towards their goal of improving the quality of life for their citizens.

Smart city development is just one of 5G’s numerous use cases, which spans from enabling 4K video streaming to automating entire supply chains. The expectation for 5G is immense. Not only does it need to deliver the capabilities to support a massive number of applications running concurrently (a key requirement for IoT), 5G also needs to address the existing challenges of current communication systems such as coverage and network reliability. We explore three technologies that serve as key enablers of the network of the future.

Network functions virtualization (NFV)

In late February, 22 mobile network operators (MNOs)—from NTT Docomo to Swisscom—came together to publish a whitepaper titled Network Functions Virtualization – White Paper on NFV Priorities for 5G. This underscores their belief that NFV is fundamental for 5G and highlights the gaps of NFV that need to be addressed to drive the industry vision for 5G standard.

It is understandable why MNOs see NFV, the concept of replacing dedicated network appliances such as routers and firewalls with software running on commercial off-the-shelf services, as a key foundation for 5G. Virtualizing network services currently carried out by proprietary hardware allows service providers to slash the massive capital traditionally associated with rolling out new or upgrading existing network infrastructure. More importantly, NFV helps optimize service creation, activation, and assurance by delivering the benefits of the cloud to the metro edge, which is key to supporting future applications that require ultra-low latency and higher bandwidth.