The flexibility of public and private cellular networks provides value over traditional fiber to connect smart cities in certain scenarios
Despite its name, the city of Peachtree Corners is far from an off-the-grid agricultural community centered on stone fruit. Instead, this Atlanta, Georgia, suburb is an innovation hub that has become one of the leading 5G smart city ecosystems in the U.S. Propelled by a technology testing space known as the Curiosity Lab, the city boasts an array of cellular-enabled infrastructure, including light detection and ranging (LiDAR) cameras, digital signage, autonomous vehicles, solar roadways, intelligent street lights, and more.
While Peachtree Corners is at the forefront of smart city solutions, many municipalities are just beginning to dip their toes into the possibilities that come with the adoption of 5G and LTE in place of wired connectivity.
What makes a city smart?
The goals of a smart city are to improve both operational efficiency and citizens’ quality of life. To achieve this, cities deploy cameras, sensors, trackers, and other devices to collect and analyze data from surfaces and locations all throughout town. That data can then be used to make immediate decisions, such as changing a stoplight based on traffic flow, or to influence long-term planning, such as rate changes in utility billing.
Smart city technology doesn’t stop where the streets end. These solutions provide insights into energy use, agriculture, utility services, construction, public health and safety, and even homes.
Wired vs. wireless smart city connections
A smart city does not necessarily have to run on 5G or LTE. If wired lines already exist in a location where a new camera, sensor, or meter is slated to go, it often makes sense to utilize that existing infrastructure to connect and power smart city IoT devices. However, there are many scenarios where cellular is the best choice for smart city connectivity.
Limited wired availability
Laying new fiber is often disruptive, time-consuming, and cost-prohibitive. But as urban sprawl creeps into new zones, existing wired lines can only reach so far. In these instances, wireless connectivity provides a high-bandwidth solution that was once only available to trenched lines — all within a reasonable timeline at a more attractive cost.
In some situations, laying new fiber isn’t an option because the “location” needing connectivity is constantly in motion. In the case of public transportation, first responders, or public service vehicles, 5G and LTE smart city solutions are vital to keeping staff and crews connected while en route.
Connectivity is only a small portion of establishing smart city infrastructure. Even in a 5G smart city where performance is at its peak, public and private partnerships must consider the entire scope of a project when deciding between wired and wireless solutions for new installations.
For example, let’s say a city wants to install cameras at four major intersections in a city. Three of the four intersections are already outfitted with wired connectivity, and the fourth will require new construction for additional lights and power. In this case, the scope for the fourth installation may be able to accommodate laying a new wired line for the camera. Alternatively, the city may compare the cost of that construction vs. moving all of the cameras to a wireless solution to save on future expenses and better integrate with 5G smart city solutions down the road. No matter the final decision, the big picture must be taken into account to connect smart cities.
Choosing between a wired or wireless smart city solution may depend on the longevity of the installation. Will the device need to be moved next week? Next month? More than a year from now? Additionally, how soon does it need to be up and running?
Consider large events such as the Olympics or the inaugural Formula One (F1) Las Vegas Grand Prix. These momentous occasions require tight public-private partnerships — a key pillar to a successful smart city — and thousands of points of connectivity from public Wi-Fi to physical security to digital signage and beyond. Within a 5G smart city, many of these needs can be accommodated within days using cellular connectivity. In this case, connected devices can be quickly moved or scaled to fit evolving event needs. Moreover, they can be easily integrated into other parts of the city once temporary event infrastructure is no longer in use.
When private 5G smart city solutions make sense
Compared to wired solutions, cellular connections enable ad-hoc smart city device placement. They can serve as network failover solutions for existing wired connections, but the choice between public and private 5G networks is often based on additional variables.
The size of a smart city project and its corresponding data consumption may drive a city to deploy a private cellular network in some cases — particularly those with high bandwidth needs such as HD video cameras. That’s because a private network uses dedicated SIM cards to give the enterprise control over traffic management and data handling policies. This control can potentially garner more cost savings compared to pay-as-you-go data plans offered on public cellular networks.
A private 5G smart city network is ideal for locations that require large amounts of data, and are geographically bound, such as a port, tunnel, water treatment plant, or parking facility. These areas often require data-intensive video surveillance, smart lighting, and digital signage on top of intricate sensor networks. Using a private cellular network as a LAN in these instances, the city can structure the network to be more bandwidth-upload capable than public networks, which are typically more tailored to downloading.
Keeping smart city networks secure
The increased attack surface of IoT networks has left IT teams on high alert, particularly in smart city environments where a breach could mean exploitation of highly sensitive city, state, and personal information. To add fuel to the fire, many IT teams must enlist the help of third-party contractors and vendors to install, service, and troubleshoot the cameras, traffic signals, license plate readers, and other devices that pepper their city networks. The more individuals with access to the network, the higher the risk of a breach.
Managing user-to-IoT connections is best accomplished using a ZTNA solution that extends certain parts of the network to the contractors, vendors, and IT users who need it without giving them access to the main network. When built on a 5G zero trust foundation that can be managed from anywhere, 5G smart city networks can continue to sprawl while reducing the attack surface.