City-wide WiFi initiatives have been springing up around the world. Close to me, in San Francisco, the city has rolled out free WiFi in 32 parks within the city limits, as well as in open plazas and along one of the main thoroughfares, Market Street. In other cities, though, the extent of free WiFi is even more impressive.
Seoul, South Korea’s “Global Digital Seoul 2020” initiative is a four-year plan to deploy enough free WiFi to cover the entire city, and that includes buses and trains. The free WiFi portion of this initiative is actually scheduled to be completed by 2017, but the overall plan extends well beyond WiFi. Seoul is planning to be a leader in smart city technology, which includes projects like real-time parking availability.
LinkNYC, our country’s best-known city-wide WiFi project, doesn’t have goals as ambitious as Seoul’s project, but it’s still a mammoth. LinkNYC aims to have 7,500 WiFi kiosks installed across the city, which will provide gigabit Internet (and free phone calls) to anyone who wants it. The speeds aren’t 5G, the range isn’t great at 50 meters, and the project doesn’t push into true smart-city territory, but it’s a good start.
City-wide WiFi and smart cities pretty much go hand in hand. Smart cities aren’t possible without city-wide WiFi – everything needs to be connected wirelessly for the smart city to operate. If you’re wondering what a “smart city” is, think of it as a connected city or an Internet of Things (IoT) city. Around the world, cities like Seoul are pushing toward an IoT future to improve infrastructure and enable residents. The main idea behind a smart city is that it can cultivate better experiences for the people who live there. In order to improve the standard of living, there will have to be a coordinated effort by an array of technologies, and that coordination can only happen with widespread WiFi.
Every aspect of city life can be improved with the deployment of smart city technology. Transportation officials can use traffic data to optimize stoplight timing (something currently being done in Palo Alto). DPW officials can gather information to improve trash-collection schedules and be notified instantly if, for example, a water line ruptures or a sinkhole gobbles up some pavement. Technologies like ShotSpotter are already helping to reduce instances of gunfire by using sensors to determine where the gunshot occurred. This information is relayed to law enforcement, but imagine if that same information could be disseminated through the city’s WiFi network to alert residents about a high-risk area to avoid.
The coverage of city-wide WiFi could also help in the event of a disaster. This could run from personal emergencies like heart attacks (if they’re wearing a biomedical sensor), to wide-scale disasters like earthquakes or explosions. The ability to locate people using a city-wide WiFi network would drastically increase their chances of survival by reducing the time it takes to find them. Imagine being able to locate individuals trapped in a building based on mobile WiFi signals. Smart cities are safe cities, but smart cities are also cities that will see an increase in earning opportunities.
Business Potential for Smart Cities
As of now, the world’s urban population is a few ticks north of 50 percent of the total population. That percentage is expected to rise steadily, hitting 60 percent by 2025. And those are the global numbers – in the developed world the population is predicted to hit 80 percent urbanization by the same year. These numbers might be the basis for the Frost & Sullivan estimate that, in 2020, smart cities will be a $1.5 trillion market worldwide. Getting involved in IoT and smart cities is an intelligent business decision, and companies like Cisco are already setting aside millions of dollars for IoT and disruptive tech. The rise of IoT represents an unprecedented way to instantly interact with customers and get actionable insights by analyzing the data that’s available.
Autonomous vehicles and smart homes might be the most promising segments of IoT in terms of potential revenue, but every device connected to the IoT architecture is an opportunity for businesses to optimize their practices for reaching customers. Pervasive network connectivity means a lower barrier with respect to targeted marketing, and consumers are already doing things like comparison shopping on their phones while they’re in a store, which will become even more prevalent. The data loads of an IoT world allow for new levels of data analysis – buying habits, browsing habits, foot traffic analysis – which could lead to better product placement and higher yields.
Obstacles to Smart City Initiatives
Those same data loads, however, will be a sizable obstacle for smart cities to overcome. An 80 percent urban population using WiFi all across their cities will lead to a massive jump in the sheer amount of data being pushed through the network at any given time. Figuring out a way to handle that jump in traffic, as people take advantage of pervasive WiFi to stream video on the go, for example, will be paramount when creating a smart city. Another issue is that the health of a smart city’s ecosystem is contingent on the collaboration between businesses and IoT devices. These businesses will have to work with each other, navigating through an ever-more-congested network to access each other’s information.
As far as data loads are concerned, software-defined networking (SDN) can help mitigate some of the concern by optimizing routing paths for information through the network, working to spread the flow of traffic evenly throughout the network. This will be especially important for IoT’s unpredictable data flows and peak times. Fortunately, SDN has the ability to automate responses to data load increases, and can be programmed to give priority to certain, critical kinds of information. SDN can provision or de-provision bandwidth based on the needs of the moment. For businesses that can’t take risks with downtime, bypassing the public Internet entirely is possible with direct connection.
We don’t have to do much to drive the implementation of smart-city technologies – they’re already being adopted. Businesses are driving support for IoT and smart cities because of the obvious economic potential, so there’s no need to worry whether or not we’ll see smart cities in the near future. The issue is developing the architecture involved so it’s ready to handle the influx of devices and data loads. A SDN approach to smart cities will mean better manageability and flexibility. A SDN network is a stronger, more dynamic network, which is exactly what a smart city network has to be if it wants to be viable on a real-world scale.