From Smart Cities To Smart Nations

One of the key problems cities will face is deploying and configuring the large numbers of nodes. Doing this manually is intractable. Automated orchestration is the only feasible way. Here, telcos significantly trail the superscalers.

Capturing the Opportunity

Smart Cities are based on instrumenting the infrastructure with small, low-cost sensors and actuators. Intelligence is then applied to the data to make decisions that make things work better. Connecting this all up is a fundamental requirement. Wireless communications are considered key because of the large number of sensors and actuators involved, and the range of types of placement. Many of these sensors and actuators will not have access to the electrical grid.  So, low power operation is considered a fundamental requirement. Low power requires very efficient communications. Also, because of the numbers involved, the cost of communication per node must be extremely low.

Telcos have a good foundation of experience in fielding ubiquitous wireless connectivity. However, to be successful in the Smart City space, they must dramatically lower their costs and power consumption. Some see latency as an issue, too. Experience with adding 5G core functionality to 4G networks along with other initiatives is showing some promise in these respects.

One of the key problems cities will face is deploying and configuring the large numbers of nodes. Doing this manually is intractable.  Automated orchestration is the only feasible way. Here, telcos significantly trail the superscalers. Automated orchestration can also dramatically lower telco infrastructure costs. This is an area where telcos must apply themselves if they want to be able to even enter the game. Ms. Neuman’s insight here is particularly significant: “Configuration management is one of the trouble spots today.  As systems become more and more complex, it becomes easier and easier to make a configuration mistake or forget to set a critical option leading to higher risks of failure or compromise.”

Although basic connectivity can be valuable, the really profitable area will be the provision of intelligence. In large central site systems, superscalers have a commanding lead. But the real opportunity is in distributed intelligence. This is because of both the large number of nodes and the requirement to act locally and quickly (a future article will feature an in-depth technical discussion on this subject). In this distributed area, the playing field is more level and telco experience with basestation nets may give them a slight lead.

So, the path to success at the city level is a combination of orchestration and distributed intelligence. What about the move to Smart Nations? Historically, the way to make sure that Smart Cities could be integrated into Smart Nations was to impose strict standards early in the process. The problem with this is that it inhibits innovation. It prevents different cities from experimenting with different approaches, technologies, business models, etc. In addition to crushing innovation, it makes it hard for individual cities to design systems that meet their unique situations. For example, a port city like Amsterdam might have very different requirements than Paris, France, or an agricultural hub like Kearney, Nebraska in the US.

Another approach is to have one company do all the cities. This is like the old Bell System in the US. Google (as above) has already raised its hand to do this.  

In today’s software-centric world, none of these old approaches is required. There are sure to be those whom, from personal interest or old habit, recommend them. But they aren’t necessary. It is possible to allow cities to try radically different approaches and use an orchestration overlay to normalize them and provide a unified national view. In fact, it is very important to do so. As Ms. Neuman points out, “Comparing the rise of Smart Cities to similar Internet advancements, entirely homogenous solutions have lead to some of the largest compromises and least resilient solutions.”

To net all this out, a software-centric orchestration system with distributed intelligence is the key enabler. In the software-centric world, the superscalers have a big head start. But they are burdened by a lack of trust and a lack of experience with widely geographically distributed nodes.

Thus, the telcos can capture this valuable market! To do so, they have to develop innovative software capability in orchestration and distributed intelligence. The current telco vendor ecosystem is not capable of providing this (see “Creating a Sustainable Innovation Ecosystem” from January, 2020). It is possible for Telco’s to develop such a software driven innovation ecosystem (see “Software-Driven Ecosystems” from February 2020 and “Building an Innovation Ecosystem” from April 2020). 

Capturing this opportunity will require change, and change is never easy. Yet change offers the only path forward in such a rapidly evolving world.


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