A new role for telcos in smart cities

This report considers how telecommunications operators could play a deeper role in smart city projects, arguing that the multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary nature of smart city strategies requires a high level of coordination. Some telecommunications operators may be able to play that role. That will bring the operator closer to the citizens, who, in turn, are also their customers. This new position could enable new business models for telecommunications operators.

With the aim of identifying how telecoms operators can evolve and deepen their reach into the smart cities vertical, this report explores the various forms of smart city governance used or that could be used in the development of smart city strategies, and the potential value for telcos in participating in each of them.

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The smart city lifecycle

The evolution of smart city strategies

The concept of smart city and smart community goes back to 1997 when the California Institute for Smart Communities developed a “Smart Communities Guidebook” in which smart community was defined as following:

“A smart community is simply that: a community in which government, business, and residents understand the potential of information technology, and make a conscious decision to use that technology to transform life and work in their region in significant and positive ways.”

Since then, the definition of smart city has evolved between an approach majorly focussed on the use of technology and another one towards a more collaborative approach among different disciplines trying to make the entire concept less technology centric. The latter has driven the attention on the concept of smart city. In fact, on the technology side, the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has provided the technological tools for simply implementing the definition by the California Institute for Smart Communities. On the socio-economics side, the continuous demographic pressure on cities and their increasing economic importance have pushed city administrations to re-think the purpose of the city and the services provided to citizens, businesses and other city stakeholders. The combination of the possibilities offered by technology and the increasing socio-economic importance of cities have brought the concept of the smart city to the top of the political agenda and challenged the business community to explore how to transform smart cities into a business opportunity.

Putting aside the socio-economic and political aspects of smart cities, the IoT has become an important technological framework for smart city development. The IoT transforms spaces into connected and intelligent ones. The data are gathered, exchanged, analysed and actions are taken based on that analysis. However, the data gathered within smart cities is spread across multiple different systems. The key role of IoT is therefore to provide the technological fabric for the smooth functioning of a smart city’s “system of systems” that benefits both citizens and businesses.

In practice, many smart city projects evolve organically, from the bottom up, rather than from a top-down technology driven model. Several cities have started experimenting with the application of IoT in their services, initially, focussing on a specific application. There have been then several smart parking projects, intelligent lighting projects, smart public safety solutions and so on. But that is only the first step. As per any IoT solution, the user appreciates the value of the IoT project outcome – the beauty of the data gathered and the value of its analysis – and wants then to explore more. In that way, the smart parking projects have expanded into environmental monitoring solutions and/or public safety solutions, gradually morphing into more complex projects.

Introducing the smart city strategy lifecycle

The evolution of smart city projects requires an overall smart city strategy that needs to be managed. The smart city strategy does not have a conclusion, but rather evolves continuously based on achievements, issues and new city needs. Therefore, it is important to see smart city strategies with a lifecycle approach, broken into five key phases.

Figure 1: Smart city strategy lifecycle

Smart city lifecycle: assessment > design > launch > implementation > monitoringSource: STL Partners

  • Smart city assessment: This phase looks at the needs of the city, as well as its level of digital maturity. The digital maturity can be addressed in a variety of ways through the monitoring framework (discussed in more detail later in the report). This phase needs to be very inclusive of all the city stakeholders: businesses, academia, public organisations and citizens’ groups. The output of the smart city assessment is then used in the strategy design phase.
  • Strategy design: A smart city strategy document should contain overall objectives, projects to implement, and resources to use. The strategy document should also include a monitoring framework.
  • Strategy launch: Following agreement on a smart city strategy, some cities run an external consultation with city stakeholders for a sort of wider evaluation. The launch phase’s main goal is to make the city aware of the strategy and the roadmap for implementation. The inclusiveness of the city as a whole in the process is a key factor of success.
  • Strategy implementation: The length of this phase really depends on the decisions in the roadmap. The roadmap could include both short-term and long-term projects.
  • Smart city monitoring: In this phase the monitoring framework established in the strategy design phase is put into operation. That framework should assess the evolution of the smart city strategy implementation. The output of the smart city monitoring can enable another cycle, starting with a fresh assessment. The repetition of the cycle can also be established in the smart city strategy.

Those participating in smart city monitoring, assessment and strategy design phases tend to be long-term, ongoing partners of municipalities, while the implementation phase includes many more partners on a project basis. For telcos seeking to play a broader role in smart cities, the goal is therefore to be more involved in the monitoring, assessment and strategy phases.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Research methodology
  • The smart city lifecycle
    • The evolution of smart city strategies
    • Introducing the smart city strategy lifecycle
    • Smart city monitoring framework: What smart cities are trying to achieve
  • Smart city governance models: How cities are working towards their goals
    • Defining smart city governance
    • Mapping smart city governance models
    • Smart governance case studies
  • The smart city coordination opportunity for telcos
    • Telcos’ current participation in smart city governance
    • How telcos can develop a coordination role in smart cities
  • Conclusions and recommendations

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Key Questions for The Future of the Network, Part 2: Forthcoming Disruptions

We recently published a report, Key Questions for The Future of the Network, Part 1: The Business Case, exploring the drivers for network investment.  In this follow-up report, we expand the coverage into two separate areas through which we explore 5 key questions:

Disruptive network technologies

  1. Virtualisation & the software telco – how far, how fast?
  2. What is the path to 5G? And what will it be used for?
  3. What is the role of WiFi & other wireless technologies?

External changes

  1. What are the impacts of government & regulation on the network?
  2. How will the vendor landscape change & what are the implications of this?

In the extract below, we outline the context for the first area – disruptive network technologies – and explore the rationales and processes associated with virtualisation (Question 1).

Critical network-technology disruptions

This section covers three huge questions which should be at the top of any CTO’s mind in a CSP – and those of many other executives as well. These are strategically-important technology shifts that have the potential to “change the game” in the longer term. While two of them are “wireless” in nature, they also impact fixed/fibre/cable domains, both through integration and potential substitution. These will also have knock-on effects in financial terms – directly in terms of capex/opex costs, or indirectly in terms of services enabled and revenues.

This is not intended as a round-up of every important trend across the technology spectrum. Clearly, there are many other evolutions occurring in device design, IoT, software-engineering, optical networking and semiconductor development. These will all intersect in some ways with telcos, but there are so many “logical hops” away from the process of actually building and running networks, that they don’t really fit into this document easily. (Although they do appear in contexts such as drivers of desirable 5G network capabilities).

Instead, the focus once again is on unanswered questions that link innovation with “disruption” of how networks are conceived and deployed. As described below, network-virtualisation has huge and diverse impacts across the CSP universe. 5G will likely have a large gap versus today’s 4G architecture, too. This is very different to changes which are mostly incremental.

The mobile and software focus of this section is deliberate. Fixed-network technologies – fast-evolving though they are – generally do not today cause “disruption” in a technical sense. As the name suggests, the current newest cable-industry standard, DOCSIS3.1, is an evolution of 3.0, not a revolution. There is no 4.0 on the drawing-boards, yet. But the relative ease of upgrade to “gigabit cable” may unleash more market-related disruptions, as telcos feel the need to play catch-up with their rivals’ swiftly-escalating headline speeds.

Fibre technologies also tend to be comparatively incremental, rather than driving (or enabling) massive organisational and competitive shifts. In fixed networks there are other important drivers – competition, network unbundling, 4K television, OTT-style video and so on – as well as important roles for virtualisation, which covers both mobile and fixed domains. For markets with high use of residential “OTT video” services such as Netflix – especially in 4K variants – the push to gigabit-range speeds may be faster than expected. This will also have knock-on impacts on the continued improvement of WiFi, defending against ever-faster cellular WiFi networks. Indeed, faster gigabit cable and FTTH networks will be necessary to provide backhaul for 4.5G and 5G cellular networks, both for normal cell-towers and the expected rapid growth of small-cells.

The questions covered in more depth here examine:

  • Virtualisation & the “software telco”: How fast will SDN and NFV appear in commercial networks, and how broad are their impacts in both medium and longer terms? 
  • What is the path from 4G to 5G? This is a less-obvious question than it might appear, as we do yet even have agreed definitions of what we want “5G” to do, let alone defined standards to do it.
  • What is the role of WiFi and other wireless technologies? 

All of these intersect, and have inter-dependencies. For instance, 5G networks are likely to embrace SDN/NFV as a core component, and also perhaps form an “umbrella” over other low-power wireless networks.

A fourth “critical” question would have been to consider security technology and processes. Clearly, the future network is going to face continued challenges from hackers and maybe even cyber-warfare, against which we will need to prepare. However, that is in many ways a broader set of questions that actually reflect on all the others – virtualisation will bring its own security dilemmas, as (no doubt) will 5G. WiFi already does. It is certainly a critical area that bears consideration at a strategic level within CSPs, although it is not addressed here as a specific “question”. It is also a huge and complex area that deserves separate study.

Non-disruptive network technologies

As well as being prepared to exploit truly disruptive innovations, the industry also needs to get better at spotting non-disruptive ones that are doomed to failure, and abandoning them before they incur too much cost or distraction. The telecoms sector has a long way to go before it embraces the start-up mentality of “failing fast” – there are too many hypothetical “standards” gathering dust on a metaphorical shelf, and never being deployed despite a huge amount of work. Sometimes they get shoe-horned into new architectures, as a way to breathe life into them – but that often just encumbers shiny new technologies with the failures of the past.

For example, over the past 10+ years, the telecom industry has been pitching IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) as the future platform for interoperating services. It is finally gaining some adoption, but essentially only as a way to implement VoIP versions of the phone system – and even then, with huge increases in complexity and often higher costs. It is not “disruptive” except insofar as sucking huge amounts of resources and management attention, away from other possible sources of genuine innovation. Few developers care about it, and the “technology politics” behind it have helped contribute to the industry’s problems, not the solutions. While there is growth in the deployment of IMS (e.g. as a basis for VoLTE – voice on LTE, or fixed-line VoIP) it is primarily an extra cost, rather than a source of new revenue or competitive advantage. It might help telcos reduce costs by retiring old equipment or reclaiming spectrum for re-use, but that seems to be the limit of its utility and opportunity.

Figure 1: IMS-based services (mostly VoIP) are evolutionary not disruptive

Source: Disruptive Analysis

A common theme in recent years has been for individual point solutions for technical standards to seem elegant “in isolation”, but actually fail to take account of the wider market context. Real-world “offload” of mobile data traffic to WiFi and femtocells has been minimal, because of various practical and commercial constraints – many of which have been predictable. Self-optimising networks (where radio components configured, provisioned and diagnosed themselves automatically) suffered from apathy by vendors – as well as fears from operator staff that they might make themselves redundant. A whole slew of attempts at integrating WiFi with cellular have also had minimal impact, because they ignored the existence of private WiFi and user behaviour. Some of these are now making a return, engineered into more holistic solutions like HetNets and SDN. Telcos execs need to ensure that their representatives on standards bodies, or industry fora, are able to make pragmatic decisions with multiple contributory inputs, rather than always pursue “engineering purity”.

Virtualisation & the “software telco” – how far, how fast?

Spurred by rapid advances in standardised computing products and cloud platforms, the idea of virtualisation is now almost ubiquitous across the telecom sector. Yet the specialised nature of network equipment means that “switching to the cloud” is a lot more complicated than is the case for enterprise IT. But change is happening – the industry is now slowly moving from inflexible, non-scalable network elements or technology sub-systems, to ones which are programmable, running on commercial hardware, and which can “spin up” or down in terms of capacity. We are still comparatively early in this new cycle, but the trend now appears to be inexorable. It is being driven both by what is becoming possible – and also the threats posed by other denizens of the “cloud universe” migrating towards the telecoms industry and threatening to replace aspects unilaterally.

Two acronyms cover the main developments:

  • Software-defined networks (SDN) change the basic network “plumbing” – rather than hugely-complex switches and routers, transmitting and processing data streams individually, SDN puts a central “controller” function in charge of more flexible boxes. These can be updated more easily, have new network-processing capabilities enabled, and allow (hopefully) for better reliability and lower costs.
  • Network function virtualisation (NFV) is less about the “big iron” parts of the network, instead focusing on the myriad of other smaller units needed to do more specific tasks relating to control, security, optimisation and so forth. It allows these supporting functions to be re-cast in software, running as apps on standard servers, rather than needing a variety of separate custom-built boxes and chips.

Figure 2: ETSI’s vision for NFV

                                                                                    Source: ETSI & STL Partners

And while a lot of focus has been placed on operators’ own data-centres and “data-plane” boxes like routers and assorted traffic-processing “middle-boxes” even, that is not the whole story. Virtualisation also extends to the other elements of telco kit: “control-plane” elements used to oversee the network and internal signalling, billing and OSS systems, and even bits of the access and radio network. Tying them all together – and managing the new virtual components – brings new challenges in “orchestration”.

But this begs a number of critical subsidiary questions.

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Does the network matter? And will it face “disruption”?
  • Raising questions
  • Overview: Which disruptions are next?
  • Critical network-technology disruptions
  • Non-disruptive network technologies
  • Virtualisation & the “software telco” – how far, how fast?
  • What is the path to 5G? And what will it be used for?
  • What is the role of WiFi & other wireless technologies?
  • What else needs to happen?
  • What are the impacts of government & regulation?
  • Will the vendor landscape shift?
  • Conclusions & Other Questions
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game
  • Figure 1: New services are both network-integrated & independent
  • Figure 2: IMS-based services (mostly VoIP) are evolutionary not disruptive
  • Figure 3: ETSI’s vision for NFV
  • Figure 4: Virtualisation-driven services: Cloud or Network anchored?
  • Figure 5: Virtualisation roadmap: Telefonica
  • Figure 6: 5G timeline & top-level uses
  • Figure 7: Suggested example 5G use-cases
  • Figure 8: 5G architecture will probably be virtualised from Day 1
  • Figure 9: Key 5G Research Initiatives
  • Figure 10: Cellular M2M is growing, but only a fraction of IoT overall
  • Figure 11: Proliferating wireless options for IoT
  • Figure 12: Forthcoming IoT-related wireless technologies
  • Figure 13: London bus with free WiFi sponsored by ice-cream company
  • Figure 14: Vendor landscape in turmoil as IT & network domains merge