Cities large and small are looking to smarten up.
More specifically, they are planning to evolve from rather passive cities into “smart cities.” When we talk about smart cities, we’re referring to coordinated efforts by local government, businesses, and other organizations to tap into networking technologies that enhance livability, workability, and sustainability for the people who live and work there. But do these cities have the network infrastructure in place to deploy new, innovative technologies and really take advantage of them? As metropolitan populations (and thus, the number of people who need to be serviced by these implementations) keep growing — can networks keep up?
What Does a Smart City Look Like?
There are millions of devices already deployed in cities, and billions more coming, that can make a city “smarter” by collecting data on traffic, weather, energy, and water usage, and much more, often in real-time. That data can be analyzed and the resulting knowledge put to work to understand what’s happening now and predict what will happen in the future. For example, monitoring traffic patterns might alert city planners of the future need for a widened lane or new traffic light. Knowing this information well in advance will allow cities to contract with construction firms in plenty of time with detailed information on where new traffic implementations will be most effective.
5G Will Drive the Smart City
The smart city of the near-future, and in some cases the present, is underpinned by the uninterrupted and reliable flow of data from interconnected wired and wireless networks. When data needs to be real-time, it absolutely cannot be interrupted or bogged down by latency problems.
Although the 5G standards haven’t been finalized yet, there are a number of expected improvements we can expect around increase in bandwidth (up to 1,000 times per unit area), number of connected devices (up to 100 times more), and network energy utilization (up to 90 percent reduction), along with up to 10 Gb/s connection rates to mobile devices in the field — a staggering number.
Fortunately, the coming age of 5G mobile networks brings with it a new capability to combat disruption and makes sure that the various requirements for latency, bandwidth, and reliability for different services can be met all on the same physical network. It’s called network slicing.
5G allows for significant performance enhancements and the ability for mobile network operators (MNOs) to virtually partition–or slice–the network to guarantee the required performance for various applications. The process will allow networks to be broken up into numerous portions that can be managed independently, customized, and, most importantly, not affect one another if one portion is overloaded or down. This technique allows for various use cases—and their similarly varied requirements for performance, security, latency, and more—to coexist on a common physical network. It also creates flexibility that will allow network operators to meet the needs of services in the future, including those not even invented yet.
Why is Network Slicing Important?
By rightsizing mobile connectivity for each use case with multiple virtual networks over a common physical network infrastructure, operators can quickly enable services specifically tailored for each slice’s use case. Slices can be customized to each case’s required network performance related to such metrics as capacity, latency, security, duration, reliability, and geographic coverage.
This is particularly important for smart city implementations as devices involved in the smart city could directly or indirectly have an impact on individuals’ lives. Think, for example, of a first responder network that has been outfitted with advanced communication tools to help those responders coordinate fast and effective rescues during emergencies. If a disaster strikes and the city’s inhabitants all jump onto social media to send texts, pictures, and videos at the same time, mobile network operators would still be able to guarantee connectivity to emergency responders by assigning them the highest priority access to the 5G mobile network — their slice is priority number one.
Prepping the Network: SDN and NFV
As cities become smarter and more connected, network operators need to make sure their networks are flexible and capable of slicing to meet the growing and increasingly varied needs of the smart city and its population. Key to this is virtualization in the form of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV); 5G networks will have to be adaptable, dynamic, and programmable from end-to-end using virtualized constructs. Then, as individual slices of the network are implemented, their performance will be tailored autonomously and programmatically.
SDN involves the complete abstraction of physical network infrastructure, which will allow network behavior to be adapted to a guaranteed service performance for each individual use case. Network slices can be implemented that are tailor-made for each of a broad range of supported use cases over the very same pool of physical network assets.
NFV allows network functions to be deployed and implemented strictly through software rather than buying, shipping, installing, and turning up physical appliances. One of the most promising benefits of NFV is the ability to execute a variety of virtual network functions (VNFs) independent of physical location, meaning VNFs can be dynamically deployed and executed in different parts of the greater network for each network slice.
Revenue Opportunities and Security Threats
SDN- and NFV-ready networks will open the gates to new and yet-to-be-developed use cases. This will contribute to innovative, ongoing revenue streams that go beyond simple connectivity and capacity.
Anything that increases differentiation of mobile network services will surely be looked at closely by mobile network operators, as the commoditization of mobile bandwidth is already well underway where price is the de facto differentiation in most regions. And the ability to guarantee top network slices for essential services that need guaranteed metrics (like driverless cars and public services provided by the city itself—emergency response, public safety, public data visibility, and more)—will help not only drive revenue for operators, but also ensure the effectiveness of cutting-edge smart city technologies to improve the lives of citizens.
Will We All Live in Smart Cities Soon?
Cities and their inhabitants are showing a significant interest in taking advantage of the many benefits of the smart city. It will be up to network operators to step in and make sure the connected city of the future has the networking foundation to pull this transformation off. Taking advantage of 5G’s ability to slice networks will help operators provide the right connectivity, speed, and reliability that each of these cases will require.