Smart cities could be closed off to operators, argues conference

Features

Mobile operators were conspicuous by their absence at a recent conference discussing smart cities, with telcos accused of offering "expensive, restrictive and limited" networks that would be unable to underpin them.

The regular Westminster eForum events usually feature several operator speakers but today's [Thursday] event, held in central London, did not feature one.

Much was made of the need for smart cities on a day when London's underground network was brought to a standstill because of industrial action. But delegates were told that building the technology for a smart city was probably the easiest part of the process; where it becomes complex is in the dealing with data, regulators and local authorities.

Given it already runs 10 smart cities projects across the UK, an Arqiva executive accepted it would be no surprise that he would talk up the LPWAN technology that runs across its networks.

However, Sean Weir, the company's Business Development Director, revealed legacy wireless networks had been a barrier to progress in smart cities innovation. He said: "They are expensive, restrictive and offer limited coverage, whether that is a Wi-Fi network, 3G or 4G. These are quite costly networks [if you want] to deploy devices at a large scale."

He said the latter point was crucial because innovation is fuelled by the increasing amount of devices on the market. Existing cellular and Wi-Fi networks were not fit for this purpose as they could not handle the sheer volume of devices, or the propagation required for them to operate properly.

A separate panel discussed how urban challenges could be tackled by smart technology and it was similarly reticent about the role, if any, of operators.

Paul Brodrick, Head of Connect Communities, Energy Management Division, Siemens, gave a "tentative yes" when asked by Mobile Europe as to whether operators had a role to play but added: "From a mobile operator perspective, you talk about IoT but they have had M2M for a long time." The implication seemed to be that operators have had their chance, and failed to date.

Volker Buscher, Director at consultancy Arup, said muscling in alongside the likes of Google or Apple that build large technology platforms will be difficult. He said: "It's a big ask to be heard in the tech space."

Richard Harris, Director Communications and Marketing at Xerox, went further, saying he deliberately wanted to cut operators out. While the company is famous for its copiers, it is also involved in smart parking and toll road solutions.

[Read more - Operators "sterilised" mobile payments market for five years, claims UK transport exec]

Regardless of the type of connectivity used, smart cities providers still face some obstacles. Arqiva's Weir said a recent survey conducted for the company by YouGov showed public awareness was low. He said: "There's been very little impact in the UK. There are numerous [smart city] initiatives going on but 96 percent could not name one."

Last month, operators were told at the LTE World Summit that dealing with legacy networks was one of the biggest challenges the mobile industry faces as it moves towards 5G.

Smart cities were no different. Weir said: "There's a lot of legacy technology that needs to be accounted for an integrated. We are not going to be able to deploy a load of fresh technology. We live in a world where you have to retrofit."

Other issues surround the perennial question of who owns the customer and how to sift through the masses of data produced by these smart networks. 

Another area that needs to be explored is ensuring the technology is used and also that it can earn its keep for the companies or public sector organisations that fund it. Brodrick said: "We can do cool demonstrations and show off technology but we need to be able to make the city money as well."

Arqiva's research should be a warning to companies excited about smart cities. Public engagement seems to be far behind the welter of announcements, research and predictions that are part of the Internet of Things. As Buscher warned: "Smart cities is one of these buzzwords that people completely reject because it sounds soulless and empty."

Providers have a job on their hands to convince the public of the benefits of smart cities, especially when it comes to their own data. From this conference, it appears clear that mobile operators face a challenge to be even considered as a smart city provider.