What local government should do to transform Ireland's towns into 'smart cities'
Advanced technologies are only becoming more mainstream and could transform communities.
CONNECTIVITY IS INCREASINGLY king for consumers and businesses alike, as smart devices become more and more prevalent in all aspects of our lives.
Many readers of this column will have received fitness trackers, smart clothing, VR games, voice-activated virtual assistants and even a smart kettle or toaster as Christmas gifts.
But the technology behind these devices is also becoming increasingly visible outside the home.
If we are taking public transport, for instance, we want real-time passenger information.
In our connected car, we want traffic reports, alerts for available parking or to know where we can charge our new electric vehicle.
We want to be offered deals on coffee or lunch if we park near a connected cafe.
This demand for greater connectivity presents challenges in developing the necessary infrastructure to support it. But it also offers opportunities, particularly to Ireland’s county councils, which can be at the forefront in implementing these smart-city technologies – and reap the benefits for themselves and their communities in the process.
After all, for many small businesses in Ireland, their success or failure depends on their ability to get connected, affecting everything from whether they accept card payments to whether they can offer click-and-collect services or online shopping.
As the retail industry continues to undergo fundamental changes, these services and businesses’ ability to tap into the ‘smart city’ will only become more important.
Of course, smart cities mean different things to different people and organisations. But some areas are already leading the way in this regard, with Dublin’s four local authorities creating the Smart Dublin initiative, using smart technologies to provide better services and boost economic activity in the capital.
Kerry also possesses a thriving sci-tech community, committed to attracting the best talent and initiatives to the south-west.
Many towns in Ireland now boast fast broadband, and this will only improve as networks are developed and rolled out. SIRO and Eir are already building networks to improve connectivity in many rural areas.
When the National Broadband Plan is completed, other rural towns should also gain access to superfast broadband. Cignal and mobile operators such as Vodafone, Three and Eir are currently building the mobile networks of the future and preparing to roll out 5G in 2019.
But if these regions are to maximise their attractiveness as places to live, do business and visit, then more will need to be done to enhance connectivity.
Businesses will require more flexibility to support larger-scale Internet of Things devices and high-performance, real-time video and voice communications.
Second-generation technology and 3G will not be enough to support this demand, and the type of traffic that smart city technology generates.
Instead, there will be a need for 5G with a fibre backbone, which in turn will require an increase in the number of small cells installed across Ireland’s towns.
As a result, the dominance of cellular and Wi-Fi will continue, and Wi-Fi access points will need to be connected directly via fibre to meet the increased demand for capacity, speed and low latency. There will be less need for towers and antennae on rooftops or on hills, but space for large antennas will still be required.
These are significant challenges but offer an excellent opportunity for city and county councils to become involved and lead the way in facilitating smart-city infrastructure.
Getting permission from landowners for these types of developments can be difficult, but county councils already own much of the national infrastructure needed to deploy this technology.
And it would not require planning permission to add a small cell to, for example, street lights or public car parks, which can then be used to support increased connectivity in the local area.
Doing so would allow councils to become leaders in developing state-of-the-art and profitable communications networks to benefit local domestic and business communities.
They would also have the option of selling on a slice of their network to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), which would have significant advantages for both operators and councils.
MNOs would benefit from the ability to buy small cells in bulk and secure quicker sign-off times for projects, while councils earn recurring revenues by allowing wholesale telecoms companies build and operate a network in their area.
We can look to a number of international examples to see how this approach would work in practice, with Aberdeen City Council in Scotland perhaps leading the way.
It partnered with Wireless Infrastructure Group through a concession contract and has now built the UK’s first fibre-connected, small-cell infrastructure than can be used by all network providers.
Demand for connectivity among consumers and businesses is at an all-time high and is only going to increase into the future as smart devices become more prevalent and high-speed communication becomes the norm.
County councils have a golden opportunity to get ahead of the curve, increase their ability to attract investment and generate additional economic growth by developing Ireland’s first smart-city infrastructure.
Ian Duggan is the CEO of 4site.
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