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Smart Cities Telecommunications

Smart Cities Telecommunications Foundation

Ubiquitous broadband telecommunication is a prerequisite for a smart city. This chapter explains how to achieve a telecommunications architecture that can serve as the foundation of a smart city and the foundation for major improvements in livability, workability and sustainability.

We begin by defining telecommunications, both as it exists today and as it will evolve tomorrow. After we discuss the “what,” we’ll talk about the “why” – why telecommunications is so vital to smart city success. We’ll finish by discussing the targets for telecommunications – the end states at which you should aim your efforts. Along the way, we will pay brief visits to telecommunications success stories from around the world.

First, though, a word about our use of the terms “telecommunications” and “connectivity.” Dictionaries define telecommunications as the electronic transmission of signals. When we use the word in this Guide, we are talking about a city responsibility to provide the policy environment and incentives to achieve high-quality telecommunications. However, city responsibilities such as power, public safety and transportation depend on telecommunications. Inthat sense,   is also an enabler. When we are talking about the technology in that sense, we use the term “connectivity” to make the distinction. You’ll see the word “connectivity” listed in the Smart Cities Council Framework along with other enablers such as instrumentation and computing resources. In the 21st century, people and businesses consume telecommunications like a resource, just as they consume electricity to light theirhomes and water to quench their thirst. As a result, it is vital that cities take on the responsibility of ensuring adequate telecommunications so their residents have access to high-quality communications. Cities don’t have to build, own and operate the infrastructure in fact most will not. But they must at least continue to set the conditions and policies that incentivize the private sector to install state-of-the-art telecommunications.

Telecommunications also acts as an enabler by providing connectivity. All the other responsibilities water, power, transportation, etc.  require connectivity to communicate with the sensors and devices they use to collect data. That’s why the Universal chapter already specified a universal target of “Connect devices with citywide, multi-service communications.” In other words, you’ve got two important reasons to pay close attention to telecommunications: 1) for the value it creates on its own and 2) for the value it enables for all the other responsibilities.

Telecommunications Today and Tomorrow

Before we define the targets for tomorrow’s telecommunications, we should first examine how it works today. Most cities already have many existing communications networks operating side-by-side. A typical city may have multiple cellular/mobile networks plus cable, satellite, RF mesh, microwave, radio, fiber optics, WiFi for homes and offices, ZigBee for smart meters and appliances and more (see the list on the next page). Sadly, it can be challenging to bridge between today’s networks, making it difficult to achieve the seamless, end-to-end connectivity required for a true smart city.

If that is today’s reality, then where do we want to go next? The smart city of the future is likely to have an underlying fiber optic network as both a metro loop around the city (like a ring road for traffic) and then local access that links buildings to this loop. Incredibly, tests have been able to send 100 terabits per second through a single optical fiber enough to download the entire contents of the Library of Congress in seconds! Although fibers do not run at this speed in normal usage, the extraordinary headroom in terms of performance increases is clear. Wireless access to this underlying network may be provided by WiFi, by RF Mesh, by cellular/mobile technologies or some combination.

Some businesses have taken steps to support this ‘high-speed fiber backbone.’ These fiber optic networks provide the bandwidth and speed demanded by the Digital Age. The optical network will terminate in network equipment (eg., an optical network unit) that will then break out and deliver IP and other traffic types to their destinations via a local access network. But a city also needs omnipresent wireless to provide access to sensors, controllers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices.

Most importantly, this future city will have a converged architecture embodied in an all-IP, packet-based core network a unified infrastructure that integrates various wired and wireless technologies, thereby achieving the seamless connectivity required. When we say “converged” or “unified” we do not mean that a city will end up with a single telecommunications system. Rather, we mean that it will end up with a single architecture – a single set of standards that allow multiple networks to transmit information smoothly. As we move towards the future, interoperability will be key.

Telecommunications Terminology for Smart Cities

Most cities already have multiple telecommunications networks in place. Here are 10 of the telecommunications terms and technologies are seen most often.


Coaxial cable, an inner conductor surrounded by insulation and a conductive shield, originally used for cable television but increasingly used as well for voice and data.


A radio network of transceivers called base stations distributed over land areas called cells. Cellular/mobile uses licensed frequencies and services provided by regional and/or nationwide operators. It is typically used for mobile broadband data, voice and text services. It is increasingly being used in machine-to-machine applications. For example, to collect data from smart meters and other sensors. Comes in various flavors including 3G (3rd generation), 4G-LTE (Long-Term Evolution), and 5G (future networks).

Fiber / FTTH

Fiber optics are thin, flexible strands of glass that transmit signals as light. The bandwidth enables single fiber optic cables to easily deliver 1 Gbps (one thousand million bits per second) services and even faster. Fiber to the Home, or FTTH, describes fiber being deployed to directly connect an operator’s central distribution office to individual homes.


Line-of-sight devices that must typically be placed in high locations so the sender and receiver can “see” each other. Often relayed from station to station.


POTS or Plain Old Telephone Service, typically delivered to homes and businesses over twisted pair wires. POTS is a part of the Public Switch Telecom Network (PTSN).


Transmitting data over existing electric power lines both inside the home (HomePlug) or outside (Broadband over Powerline). Typically used to collect data from smart meters and other sensors.

RF Mesh

A system using radio frequency (RF) in a “mesh” configuration such that individual nodes pass a message along until it reaches a “collector” or “gateway” that can forward it to
the backhaul network. Typically used to collect data from smart meters and other sensors.


Communications satellites can be thought of as microwave relay stations placed very, very high (typically 22,000 miles above the earth). They are often used to relay global positioning signals or to deliver television services to homes and businesses.


A popular networking technology that uses unlicensed radio waves for short- to medium-range wireless connections.


A communication protocol for “personal area networks” (PANs) created by small, low power digital radios. Typically used to connect smart meters to thermostats and home appliances that are a short distance apart.

The Importance of Telecommunications for Smart Cities

Telecommunications is used in two ways:

  1. To connect to devices people use indirectly such as sensors and switches. By 2020 there could be upwards of 50 billion devices and sensors connected in M2M (machine to
    machine) applications.
  2. To connect to devices people use directly. Today that means computers, tablets and smartphones. Soon it may also mean smartwatches and smart “glasses” (see
    nearby photos).

In both ways, telecommunications plays a pivotal role in the daily pulse of a city:

  • Banks rely on it to process transactions • Online retailers use it to receive and acknowledge orders
  • Cloud computing data centers require it to communicate with thousands or even millions of computers
  • Emergency responders need it to receive and act upon life-saving alerts
  • Parents rely on it to stay in touch with their children
  • Families use it to get access to movies, television and the Internet.

The list of ways telecommunications factors into daily life could go on and on, of course. Telecommunications is a necessity for prosperity in the modern economy. And a necessity for the digital lifestyle increasingly demanded by citizens. (In a 2011 Reuters survey, for instance, 61% of Americans said it would be easier to live without air travel than without the Internet.)

Our reliance on telecommunications will only increase as more people are connected to the Internet each day, and as we invent new uses from tablets to video streaming, to videophone calls. Councilmember Qualcomm – a world leader in 3G, 4G and next-generation wireless technologies – estimates that the world will soon demand 1,000 times more mobile data traffic than consumed in 2012.

Dependencies in Telecommunications

As cities contemplate improvements in telecommunications services, they will need to plan them with an understanding of their dependencies on energy systems and services. This one is pretty simple: communications require power. Period.

Benefits of Telecommunications for Smart Cities

Telecommunications play a critical role in promoting livability, workability and sustainability in cities.


Reducing the “digital divide.” Residents without access to the Internet are at an educational and economic disadvantage. By ensuring top-notch telecommunications everywhere, cities can help the disadvantaged level the playing field.

Empowering a connected lifestyle

Access to the Internet and mobile apps delivers an amazing body of human knowledge and connection, ranging from personal interests and hobbies to entertainment options, to job searching, to social media, to online courses and more. In developing countries around the world, mobile devices are now enabling people to have their first experiences with the Internet.

Better ways to deliver services

High-speed broadband creates a whole new way to deliver services. Government can deliver personalized alerts and applications directly to residents’ smartphones. M2M solutions can be supported. Schools can make education available 24×7 to anyone with a computer or mobile device. Medical professionals can deliver advice and perform simple examinations remotely.

Enabling safe e-transactions

Many people have come to rely on online shopping and banking. Building a telecommunications infrastructure with solid cybersecurity makes citizen life more convenient and more secure. Enabling safe, easy online and mobile payments reduces the “friction” of the local economy, leading to higher sales and more jobs.

Improving access to health and education

Telecommunications is the bedrock for online education and telemedicine, enabling the delivery of these services above and beyond their traditional boundaries, and allowing health and education professionals to serve a far wider audience than ever before.

Enabling sustainable transportation

Citywide telecommunications makes it possible to monitor and optimize the flow of cars and pedestrians. Fleet managers can track their vehicles and optimize their routes, saving time and fuel while reducing pollution and minimizing the number of trucks on the road. Parking spaces can signal when they are free, so drivers can drive directly to an open spot and avoid circling the block repeatedly.


Enhancing mobility

All over the world, mobile apps are helping people plan their routes, make better use of mass transit, and otherwise travel with greater convenience and speed and less congestion and pollution.

Enabling telecommuting

Fast, reliable Internet access enables telecommuting, creating a more flexible and satisfying lifestyle while improving productivity.

Attracting business and investment

Broadband and high-speed Internet access are no longer a convenience, they are an economic and business requirement. Cities with superior telecommunications have an edge when courting business investment. This advantage was captured in a stunning 2011 study by the World Bank that found that GDP rises 1.3% for every 10% increase in broadband penetration. Similar effects have been found for mobile broadband.

Real estate developers and business owners consider a robust telecommunications infrastructure a requirement. A city’s attractiveness is directly related to its ability to offer services that support growth and creates competitive differentiation. What’s more, citywide telecommunications help attract investment to areas that would not otherwise see it, such as low-income inner-city neighborhoods.

Creating jobs

A 2019 Communications Workers of America study found that every $5 billion investment in broadband creates 100,000 direct jobs plus another 150,000 “spinoff” positions.

Helping people boost their professional skills

Expanded access to broadband gives people better access to online professional training programs, online tertiary education and city employment services.

Increasing business access to the global economy

A smart telecommunications network allows local businesses to gain access to national and international markets, and for  rural areas to connect to the world economy.


Reducing the need for transportation

Advanced telecommunications enables videoconferencing, telecommuting, telemedicine and online education all things that lessen the need for lengthy commutes that pollute the air
and prolong our dependence on fossil fuels.

Getting more from existing assets

When expensive equipment transformers, pumps, power plants, power lines can be remotely monitored, it can be pushed to its maximum capacity without fear of overload. By the same token, its actual condition can be monitored so repairs can be made before the equipment fails, thereby extending its life.

Reducing energy and water use

Smart grids need to connect their embedded devices to technicians and control centers if they are to succeed and reduce resource waste – and
they rely on telecommunications for this service. Likewise, telecommunications enable smart buildings to report their conditions and optimize their systems to use as little water and power as possible.

Telecommunications Targets for Smart Cities

To this point, we’ve defined telecommunications and discussed its importance. Now we’ll discuss the specific targets that will allow a city to enjoy benefits like those described above.

Instrumentation and control

We use the term “smart cities” but they are also referred to as “digital cities.” And for good reason, as you’ll see in this section, where we introduce the two telecommunications-specific targets broadband access and citywide wireless.

Ensure ubiquitous high-speed broadband access

This is the first target exclusive to the responsibility of the telecommunications. Smart cities ensure best-of-breed, high-speed broadband access across their geography to all or most buildings. Since cities have different legacy investments and circumstances, and because technology will change rapidly in 20 years, we cannot make a definitive technical specification. As noted, however, today this typically means a fiber optic backbone combined with increasingly high bandwidth wireless technologies. Your goal should be to eventually connect virtually every business and home to that fiber loop (or to whatever technology you use in its place).

Ensure a citywide wireless network

This is the second and final target unique to telecommunications. A citywide wireless network ensures that people – whether at work, at play or otherwise on the go – are not tethered to stationary points of Internet access. A cellular or WiFi network empowers a city and everyone in it, creating competitive advantage and convenience.

Local-area wireless networks relying on an unlicensed spectrum (ie WiFi) cannot be guaranteed to deliver this service reliably and in 100% of the areas needed. The optimal solution would be 3G/4G operator-managed networks (operating in the licensed spectrum), likely augmented by WiFi and in the future, small cells, to handle more data in high-usage areas. Because cities have several technology choices, most will want to work with private providers to identify the solution(s) right for them.

Citywide public wireless has been a luxury until recently. But we are seeing evidence that it is gradually becoming a must-have, at least for those cities that hope to attract high-income technology professionals. For instance, Austin, Texas in the spring of 2013 hammered out an agreement to deploy an ultra-high-speed Google Fiber network and later announced that a significant WiFi network would hook into it. The city of Vancouver, B.C. began deploying a citywide wireless network as outlined in its 2013 Digital Strategy, which calls wireless access “a fundamental aspect of any digital’ city” and one that “is expected by citizens.” And many cities are using mobile/cellular, including LTE, to ensure citywide coverage. Going forward, citywide wireless access is likely to be heterogeneous – that is, citizens and businesses will access a variety of wireless technologies in both licensed and unlicensed bands to get the best experiences.


So far we’ve talked about the responsibility of the telecommunications how telecommunication can empower a smart city and its residents. In this section, we highlight how connectivity acts as an enabler of smart cities.

Connect all devices with a citywide, multiservice communications system(s)

This universal target deserves additional discussion as it applies to telecommunications.

Earlier we discussed the importance of highspeed access and citywide wireless. For connectivity purposes – for connecting sensors, switches and devices – it is not strictly necessary to have either one. In theory, connectivity can be accomplished with lowspeed wireline technology. Many electric power utilities, for instance, use low-speed powerline technology to talk to their smart meters and sensors.

Regardless of the telecommunications technology you choose for device connectivity, strive to make it a “multi-service” network. That is, try to use it for a variety of purposes across different city departments. If each department stands up its own special-purpose network, your city will spend far more than needed. What’s more, it will have a harder time managing and maintaining all those disparate networks. And a harder time passing data back and forth between departments. In fact, the services architecture layer should be abstracted from the underlying access network technologies. This enables the network to be continually upgraded with less disruption of the service layer.

The clear trend worldwide is to move away from slow, single-purpose communications to fast, multi-service networks. This implies that you may be able to achieve device connectivity by using a high-capacity network that is already in place – be it cellular/mobile 3G or 4G-LTE, WiFi or other solutions like RF mesh, though data rates vary dramatically. You should identify which technology makes the most sense for your city according to your performance and cost requirements, and your circumstances.

If you are approaching device connectivity for the first time, then your technical team must take a hard look at two aspects: bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can flow through at one time (just as the width of a pipe determines how much water can flow through). Latency is the time lag to get data back and forth. A network can be high bandwidth (lots of data at the same time) but also high latency (a slow roundtrip). Or vice versa.

Your technical team must carefully determine your bandwidth and latency requirements. For instance, a network for monitoring street lights may be able to get by with high latency (a slow roundtrip). After all, it doesn’t really matter if a light turns on or off a few seconds late. But a network for monitoring electric power substations may need very low latency (a fast roundtrip). That network must be able to send and receive signals very rapidly so it can prevent a small outage from cascading to a big blackout.

Whatever your current requirements, try to leave headroom for future growth. At the very least, make sure that the products you choose are “future-friendly” – are capable of expansion when the time comes. In the early days of the smart grid, for instance, some pioneering utilities selected underpowered connectivity solutions in the hopes of saving money. But they spent more money in the long run. Many of them had to go back and upgrade their initial network a few years later. Others had to put in a new system parallel to the old one to get enough capacity. If you build it, they will come, so build in as much extra capacity as your budget allows.


Telecommunications networks are major expenditures that cities must get right. These interoperability targets ensure that the systems you use will not strand you with a dead-end system, or tie you to a single vendor.

Adhere to open standards

By insisting on open standards, cities increase choice and decrease cost, as products can be mixed and matched from different vendors. Telecommunications has dozens of relevant standards, but the most important is IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) since IPv6 has the huge address space required to accommodate the millions of devices that will ultimately connect to the network. In addition to building the core architecture around IPv6, cities should adhere to published standards from accredited groups such as IEEE, WiFi Alliance, IEC, 3GPP and the ITU. Cities can get ahead by leveraging standards that have global scale and interoperability, with a strong vendor base and widespread demand.

Prioritize the use of legacy investments. Every city wants to wring maximum value out of its technology investments. If there are ways to use existing assets in the build-out of a telecommunications network, it will save money for other purposes and reduce the number of stranded assets. During the dot-com bubble, many different companies built optical fiber networks, each hoping to corner the market. However, the advent of a technique called “wavelength-division multiplexing” increased the capacity of a single fiber by a factor of 100. As a result, the value of those networks collapsed. The misfortune of those companies means that many cities have miles of “dark fiber” under their streets the fiber that can be repurposed at a fraction of its original cost.

Longmont, Colorado, for example, recently located and repurposed an 18-mile fiber-optic loop that was installed in 1997 for $1.1 million by a local power company. It was abandoned after an early partner in the broadband venture went bankrupt. Finding and repurposing fiber can save cities millions in installation costs while re-invigorating the local economy.

Privacy and security

For all of the benefits that broadband and wireless technologies provide, there are important privacy and security considerations that need to be addressed. In particular:

Create a security framework

This universal target is especially important to telecommunications since the telecommunications network is one of the “access points” for cybercriminals. There is no point in hardening the rest of the city if the telecommunications system has its door unlocked. Your citywide security framework should explicitly lay out minimum security standards for any telecommunications network it employs.

Implement cybersecurity

The same is true for this universal target. The more telecommunications, the more vulnerability to cyber-attack. Insisting on cybersecurity measures early on maximizes protection while minimizing costs.

Computing resources

An advanced telecommunications system that includes high-speed broadband and citywide wireless not only makes it easier for city residents and businesses to access the Internet anytime from anywhere. It also enables these important targets.

Have access to a central GIS

The point of citywide wireless is to empower residents as they move about the city. Once they are mobile, they will, of course, want access to global positioning and geographic information. For instance, city employees will want the ability to see field assets on a map with descriptions – traffic signals, street lights, water mains, park facilities, etc.

Have access to the comprehensive network and device management. Once a city has high-speed access and citywide wireless, the number of connected devices will skyrocket. You will need device management software to provision and manage those devices. Departments with maintenance operations will need to manage mobile phones, tablets and laptops connected to the network. Municipal power and water utilities may need to monitor and manage thousands or even millions of smart meters and sensors. Likewise, if the city operates any telecommunications networks of its own, it will need network management software. For instance, some municipal electric power utilities seek “hybrid” management software that can oversee multiple networks from a single console. (Many utilities have multiple networks in place side-by-side.) And don’t forget the importance of a comprehensive device management program to enforce compliance with city data management, security and privacy policies.

Partnering with suppliers, operators and service providers is the typical path to get access to network and device management.


We mentioned in an earlier chapter how smartphones create the equivalent of human sensors that collect and broadcast data over telecommunications networks. These add to the data stream that cities can use to analyze patterns and trends and improve city services. One of the universal targets for analytics deserves additional discussion in the context of telecommunications.

Achieve asset optimization

This universal target refers primarily to the use of sophisticated software to a) run equipment to capacity while still staying safe and b) predicting when expensive equipment will need repair and c) calculating which equipment is most critical to prioritize replacements and upgrades. When it comes to telecommunications, it can also refer to a “manual” process namely, the idea of multiservice networks using a single telecommunications network for multiple purposes to extract maximum value from your investment.

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