Smart Cities & Urban Environments - Part 2
Smart Cities & Urban Environments: Street Lighting & Furniture
This is the second 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%. Urbanisation is good for economic and even environmental reasons, but brings challenges for transport, housing, energy and – as COVID-19 shows – healthcare. Municipalities have complex webs of transport, energy, housing, waste, safety and various other functions. Telecoms, IoT and networks are central to exploiting the benefits of cities, and solving their problems.
The urban street landscape is dotted with many examples of “furniture” – physical functional elements used by citizens and businesses. These include:
- Lighting poles and lamps
- Bus and tram shelters
- Digital signage - on boards and kiosks
- Waste bins
- Benches and seats
- Control boxes for traffic controls
- Bollards and traffic-dividers
- Parking meters and payment kiosks
- Electric vehicle (EV) charging terminals
Increasingly, these units are becoming connected and “smart” – either to perform their existing functions better, or to add new capabilities and functions. Some are also becoming integral parts of the communications network itself. They can help cities become more energy-efficient, better-connected, more efficiently-run, safer – and enable citizens to access municipal services more easily.
Of these objects, light-poles are probably the most important for the telecom industry (especially as sites for 4G/5G radio units), but the others are also highly relevant in many cases, not least as their IoT capabilities all mean potential for new network connections and associated services.
A growing number of these items of street furniture are incorporating:
- Smart lighting (see below)
- Displays for citizen information, advertising and interactivity
- Sensors measuring a broad range of metrics, such as
- Noise levels and specific sounds (eg gunshots)
- Cameras, for public safety, traffic management, security, as well as context-awareness or personalisation (eg to match advertising to people walking past)
- Radio elements, including cellular antennas / radio-heads, Wi-Fi access points and various IoT-centric network components.
- Energy functions, including solar panels, public USB-charging functions, and integral EV charging points.
- In future, some objects may themselves be “robotic” and able to move independently, reconfiguring the urban landscape for various purposes. (This is already seen with traffic-control bollards).
Lighting (and light poles) is probably the most important area for telecoms operators at the moment. Smart illumination is both a use-case for wireless connectivity, and an enabler for operators and other SPs building more-dense 4G or 5G networks, or providing public Wi-Fi.
Modern streetlighting is being upgraded from old sodium lamps or fluorescent tubes to more energy-efficient LED lamps. This switch-over usually means new poles are being installed, which gives municipal authorities an opportunity to add new capabilities at the same time. Often, new lights now incorporate sensor arrays and cameras, for environmental monitoring, public safety and big-data collection.
At the most basic level, sensors can switch lights on/off automatically when detecting human movements, to save power – or report failures needing maintenance attention. Footfall data can enable better urban planning, or give valuable insight for advertisers.
All of this needs connectivity – realtime for centralised control and management, or delayed for cloud-based data-analytics systems and reporting. In most cities, is hard to connect each pole with fibre, so wireless connections will often be essential – typically 4G or 5G from MNOs’ public networks, or perhaps from city-run private cellular or LPWAN systems.
In a growing number of cities, lighting poles will themselves become sites for radio units and small cells, as municipalities look for new revenue sources, and telcos look for new mounting-points for short-range, high-frequency network coverage, which often work best at 3-7 metre height.
Other network-intensive use-cases for street furniture
Beyond the lighting infrastructure, the next-largest opportunities for telecom operators probably involve digital kiosks / signs, and EV charging networks. While both of these can just be opportunities for connectivity for 3rd-party providers, there is also scope for telcos themselves to provide higher-level solutions, often through partnerships with advertisers, bus companies and the municipal authorities themselves.
A good example is BT’s Street Hubs, which provide fast Wi-Fi as well as advertising and public information such as mapping. Some also include small-cells for mobile network densification – and even feature underground “vaults” with equipment racks which can either support wholesale propositions (eg neutral-host cellular) or potentially edge-computing nodes.
Another opportunity for telcos is around EVs. Some SPs such as Telekom Austria have converted old phone-booths into charging points, while in Germany, Deutsche Telekom has adapted some of its street-side equipment cabinets with power outlets. Existing cable ducts can sometimes support extra power cables, while some operators are looking to offer the overall supply of electricity as a managed service to drivers (eg Virgin Media Park & Charge).
Disruptive Analysis believes there are some significant synergies here, both in outdoor street environments and also for buildings’ carparks. That said, the EV industry is a complex world in its own right, and well-chosen partnerships and longterm contracts are important.
Many smart-city and street furniture applications have an environmental angle – as the EV charging and smart-lighting applications already illustrates. However, we can expect many other approaches to apply here – often with significant connectivity needs for monitoring, control and data analytics.
For instance, air-quality is an increasing concern in many urban environments. Sensors can monitor in realtime to ensure conformance with legal requirements and improve citizens’ health. They also collect data for broader long-term analysis of pollution and climate change. 4G, 5G and LPWAN connectivity should improve the economics of localised pollution sensors, by sharing poles and power supplies, and perhaps common installation and maintenance staff.
Other “green-tech” approaches to street furniture are occurring as well. Smarter traffic-control systems at junctions can reduce traffic jams and pollution from idling vehicles. Smart waste-bins can detect when they need to be emptied, reducing trips by the refuse truck. In Brazil, advertising boards can even capture water from the humid air, either for use for cleaning streets or other purposes.
Overall, telecom operators should carefully watch the emergence of new classes of street furniture within the context of smart cities. Often, these will offer functions which overlap with other key verticals such as energy-management and public safety. Many more objects will require connectivity with either fibre or wireless – but at the same time, an increasing number will actually become integral parts of the network themselves, supporting antennas or other elements.