Wireless for Smart Cities

The term Smart Cities has taken on a lot of traction lately and now ranks as a full-fledged buzzword. But, as is the case with most buzzwords, its meaning is a bit vague and practical applications and specific benefits often unclear to most people. Fluidmesh, however, has had the privilege of being involved with many projects for cities in countries around the world, and I learned, by implementing real-life projects, what a Smart City is and what it means in practice.

Practical implementations of the Smart City concept often involve technology and automation. Among the goals of a Smart City is providing security and protection for the people living in the Smart City. The work Fluidmesh has done with and its expertise in security-related projects with law enforcement agencies has given me clear insight into what a Smart City actually is. Over the past decade, many cities and towns around the world have invested a significant amount of capital to deploy urban video-surveillance systems. We’ve all seen these systems in action in the media during major acts of terror – and they’ve often led to the identification and arrest of the criminals behind these attacks. Having many video feeds that can be used to protect people and prosecute criminals is a critical component of every Smart City.

Also relative to video streaming in a Smart City is situational awareness: government agencies and organizations in charge of safety, security and emergency management use video streams in real time in order to react to disasters and save lives. Urban security cameras are the most important element of an emergency detection system, but local government agencies also use other types of sensors in conjunction with video feeds. These can include gun-shot detection sensors and chemical, biological and nuclear sensors, which are commonly used in large cities that might be a target for an attack.

Beyond security and safety, other major components of a Smart City that I’ve had direct experience in with Fluidmesh are smart and sustainable mobility. Ideally, a Smart City is not a place where people can only use their personal vehicles and get stuck in traffic for hours. People should be able to travel on mass transit systems that are energy-efficient and faster than personal vehicles. Fluidmesh has been involved in projects that require automating traffic signals based on the location of mass transit vehicles and light rail systems. These systems are a reality today, although many people don’t realize it. Typically, when a modern tram or surface metro approaches an intersection, the tram or train is able to immediately turn the traffic signal to green and proceed without stopping at the intersection. Similar automation can be implemented in the future for cars and traffic lights to control the timing of a traffic light based on traffic flow.

Another interesting practical application involves parking. According to Cisco, up to 40% of the traffic in city centers is generated by people driving around looking for a parking spot. I was surprised at first by this figure, but it relates very well to my experience in large cities in the U.S. and Europe. People often choose not to drive into a city for fear they won’t be able to find a place to park their car when they get there. Being able to use technology to quickly pinpoint where a parking spot is available would be a great help for people, and reduce traffic! This is another example of a real-life Smart City application that is just a few years away.

As a broadband wireless vendor, Fluidmesh gets involved in many Smart City projects That’s because trenching and wiring a city can be extremely expensive and using wireless transmission is typically easier in order to create the required communication network.  Moreover, wireless is often the only viable way to connect the network vehicles, trams, trains and ferries, all of which are constantly moving. For example, Fluidmesh R&D efforts that brought our solution to connect trains and mass transit vehicles to market started five years ago because many of the cities that were already working with our products were looking for a solution to extend their network connectivity to moving vehicles.

Wireless communication plays a critical role in all Smart City projects and cities very often start building a wireless network as a first step towards becoming a “Smarter City”. In order to automate any process and transfer information, we’re always in need of communication networks across the entire city.  Back when we started Fluidmesh in 2005, most cities were mainly looking at municipal Wi-Fi (Muni Wi-Fi) as the first step towards becoming more connected cities. The Smart City concept was still in its infancy, but the success of Wi-Fi technology catalyzed many city administrations to look at ways to build  citywide Wi-Fi coverage. Unfortunately, this initial effort wasn’t particularly successful because of a significant conflict of interest between, on one hand, the city offering a best-effort Wi-Fi coverage using taxpayer money, and on the other hand, many telecom operators investing their resources to enhance their cellular and 3G networks to provide a broadband connection to their subscribers. Moreover, ten years ago, managing and maintaining a citywide Wi-Fi network with very small cells was extremely complex and expensive.

Today, there are still many cities that offer free Wi-Fi in areas like parks and major central areas. The focus has shifted, however, to building wireless infrastructures able to provide more than Wi-Fi services to residents and tourists. The automation piece of the Smart City concept took on traction, and providing Wi-Fi is becoming less important. This is also due to the increase in throughput available across cellular networks as a result of the deployment of LTE technology in major urban areas.

The debate around free Wi-Fi provided by cities and towns is still going on, however. In addition, cellular carriers are facing challenges in keeping up with the exponential increase in throughput required by their subscribers using smart phone extensively. Therefore, large scale Wi-Fi is becoming, in certain countries, a way to offload traffic from cellular base stations (BTS) and move it on the Wi-Fi frequencies. Unlike the Muni Wi-Fi networks deployed by the cities directly in 2004-2006, telecom operators are today involved in the effort to provide connectivity to residents and tourists through widespread Wi-Fi deployments. At the same time, the focus of wireless Smart Cities in most countries is shifting away from pure Wi-Fi service; local governments are focusing more on building the wireless infrastructure and deploying the technology required to make people’s lives safer, simpler, and more efficient.  The wireless network becomes an enabler to run on top of it automation and communications systems that protect people and assets, automate processes such as garbage collection and street cleaning, and reduce traffic jams and pollution.

A wireless city is already enabled to evolve into a Smart City in the very near future. Free Wi-Fi is a very nice service and I, personally, am such a Wi-Fi lover that I prefer a hotel with a good Wi-Fi service over a cleaner one. However, I believe Wi-Fi per se does not make a city smart. Wireless technology and Wi-Fi is a critical enabler for most Smart City applications.  A Smart City is one that has services running on its wireless network that allow people to get to their destination faster, walk at night with no worries, and quickly find a parking spot without wasting half an hour driving around looking for one. Smart is good!

Umberto Malesci

CEO and co-founder