Smart Cities & Urban Environments - Part 1
This is the first blog post in a series on “Smart Cities and Urban Environments” and the implications for networks & telecoms. About 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas; for developed OECD countries the figure is about 80%. While urbanisation is broadly good for economic and even environmental reasons, it also brings challenges for transport, housing, energy and – as COVID-19 shows – healthcare. Telecoms and networks are central to exploiting the benefits of cities, and solving their problems.
Over the last few years, smart city networks and platforms have emerged as a critical element of the future technology-led social and environmental landscape. Municipalities have complex webs of transport, energy, housing, waste, safety and various other functions. They can foster collaboration between public and private sectors. And while the responsibilities and infrastructure elements vary significantly by country and region, the underlying requirements are broadly similar – there is a growing need for better connectivity, IoT systems, analytics and security.
This has been reflected in the evolution of local public safety systems and the networking to underpin them. For instance, growing numbers of cities have adopted video surveillance and analytics, and numerous countries and municipalities are upgrading their first-responder networks to 4G or 5G broadband. Many emergency vehicles are already “connected”, although this is often done via national mobile networks, rather than local solutions.
Municipal governments often have the budget and capability to bring together disparate groups (including safety departments, private businesses and citizens), and also to sponsor projects at significant scale. They also have the ability to smooth bureaucratic obstacles to planning and deployment, gain community buy-in, or help enforce the tricky balance around personal privacy vs. safety, by offering record-keeping and user authentication. It can also be possible to raise additional funding from bureau of commerce, or other local enterprise groups or property owners. Such public-private partnerships can be pivotal to the smart-city realm.
In general, we can consider connectivity for these functions falling into three broad categories:
- First-responder situational awareness, and realtime voice & data communications
- Communications to & from the general public
- Ongoing urban monitoring and enforcement for public safety
Emergency responder communications
A central function of city-level public safety is the provision of reliable and secure networks for police, fire-crews, paramedics and other agencies. This spans command-and-dispatch systems, comms for first responders and their vehicles, and a growing range of “situational awareness” platforms which gather and process information in real-time.
There are a number of important domains here, all with a high dependency on reliable communications infrastructure:
- Traditional two-way radio systems for push-to-talk voice, using technologies such as TETRA and P25.
- A growing number of mobile broadband solutions for first responders, using 4G and soon 5G. These are used for handheld devices with IP-based push-to-talk/push-to-video, as well in-vehicle laptops. Some are based on private networks dedicated to public safety, while others share spectrum and infrastructure with public mobile services, but get higher-priority access. The US FirstNet system and the UK’s ESN (Emergency Services Network) are examples here.
- Various use-cases for drones, ranging from monitoring traffic around incidents, to using infra-red cameras to aid fire-fighters looking for the source of a blaze in dense urban areas. Some agencies are even starting to use drones as mobile cell-towers, providing better in-building coverage from outside.
- Wearables are used by police forces for capturing video evidence, or by fire or medical crews to enable remote advice in real-time.
- Some police forces can connect to third-parties’ security cameras remotely, for instance on a university campus or in an enterprise office.
- Growing use of robotics, either as security guards, or for remote working in dangerous situations such as fires, or to deal with suspect packages.
Communications to & from the public
The main interface between the general public and emergency services has historically been via 911 / 999 / 112 calls to PSAP (public safety answering point), which received the calls, connected to the relevant agency, and enabled call-back if required.
While ordinary voice-based emergency calls are still a central part of city-level public safety, various additional developments for public communication are occurring:
- Growing use of mobile, rather than fixed phones for calling – which adds complexity in terms of coverage, determining accurate location (ideally in 3 dimensions for large buildings), battery life and so on.
- Increasing requirements for communication via text, or submission of videos and images.
- Vehicular systems such as the European eCall standard, which can automatically notify emergency centres if a collision is detected.
- Mobile apps for personal safety and incident reporting. These range from systems to allow people to walk home safely at night by having a panic-button, to ones linked to motion-sensing for falls (or even skiers hit by an avalanche).
- Emergency alerts and cell-broadcast messages sent to phones or in-car systems, covering anything from tsunami warnings to terrorism threats.
- Communications between law-enforcement and the public through drones or robots.
Monitoring and enforcement
As well as realtime connectivity for first responders during an incident, or direct communications with the public, a growing emphasis for smart cities is around remote monitoring and enforcement of laws and public safety codes. A diverse array of cameras, sensors and data-analytics systems is allowing metropolitan authorities to improve safety and security as a “background task”.
Some of the main examples seen in this context include:
- Triangulation of gunshot sounds.
- Ongoing use of drones for incident detection.
- Use of sensors for reducing accidents, or detecting / providing evidence for crime investigations, or even registering the presence of smoke or noxious gases. These are often integrated into street equipment such as smart streetlights, bus shelters or advertising displays.
- Although controversial, facial-recognition or other automated biometric technologies are becoming more common.
- Video surveillance can pick out minor law infractions, such as drivers using mobile phones, or motorcyclists without helmets – or more serious concerns such as suspect packages, or sudden formations of crowds.
- Sensors in structural sites such as bridges or power-lines can identify dangers such as collisions with vehicles, disruption from seismic events or potential deliberate damage.
- Automated vehicle licence/number plate recognition can be used to trace offenders, or just automate access to specific locations.
- Predictive crime analytics can use multiple sources of data to help law-enforcement authorities assign resources effectively, by focusing patrols or surveillance on particular areas or buildings.
Smart Cities and pandemic response
In the past, ongoing monitoring tasks have been primarily for law-enforcement (eg cameras for security and traffic offences) and for fires, especially in-building. However, in recent months the focus of smart cities has changed, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban areas are currently at the forefront of the world’s largest health crisis in a century, with dense, hyper-connected cities such as Wuhan, London, Paris and New York among the worst-affected locations. This will undoubtedly add a new layer to future smart city requirements, and will be at the centre of new laws, projects, networks and investments.
In coming years, we should expect to see far more emphasis on health-emergency monitoring, for instance with infra-red cameras for fever monitoring. But at the same time, officials are still focused on their previous missions around public safety – maintaining law and order, managing traffic safety, preventing and controlling fires, responding to medical emergencies and so on.
As countries come out of their lockdowns, and prepare both for a possible next wave of this virus – and start to think about future emergency-planning – it seems probable that this will overlap with the next phase of smart-city deployment. Governments at both national and local levels will be seeking to maintain public health, with a variety of measures such as:
- Connected infra-red imaging for fever-detection in public spaces
- Better management of flow and occupancy-rates in crowded areas such as public squares, shops, metro systems and buses
- Hygiene control, for instance with robots disinfecting surfaces
- Integration with smart-building systems to manage the next generation of “pandemic-proof” construction and facilities codes
- Contingency systems for scaling medical facilities, distributing protective equipment and managing quarantines
- App-based systems for managing social-distancing, or for tracking/tracing paths of infection.
Taken together, all of these developments will need ever greater network capacity, reliability and security in urban areas. Given that these requirements are evolving in tandem with other smart city network deployments, it is likely that they will be strongly linked. Depending on the city, there will be a mix of involvement of public telecom operators, private networks run by the emergency agencies directly, and infrastructure and networks owned by the municipality itself. There will be a blend of fibre infrastructure (especially to static locations such as cameras), and both cellular and specialist forms of wireless connectivity. We are likely to see significant usage of edge-computing, at least at a city level, especially where large amounts of video footage needs to be stored and analysed.
While they are obviously relatively small compared to overall national networks, smart cities’ infrastructure needs to be especially dense – and reliability for public safety purposes has some unique challenges. In particular, in-building and underground network coverage poses huge challenges for cities with metro systems, or skyscrapers. The advent of 5G (with higher frequency bands) together with environmentally-friendly building insulation and glass, exacerbates the issues. City authorities will need to work closely with building facilities-management (and appropriate local laws) to ensure continuity – but the likelihood is that older systems will be needed as backups for some time to come.
We are seeing a significant shift of urban public-safety communications and networks, from voice-centric towards data and broadband. The applications are evolving from a past geared around emergency calls and push-to-talk command and control, towards one oriented more towards data, IoT and video connectivity. These will span mobile and fixed use-cases, and personal, vehicular, autonomous and static devices.
Increasingly, we will see new network infrastructure required, not just for fast-evolving police/security, fire and medical emergency communications, but also for ongoing monitoring and control. Already seen for security-type functions, this will become even more important in a post-COVID19 world, where social distancing remains critical, and periodic city/regional lockdowns and quarantines may endure into the future.