The world is becoming more urban. According to a 2008 United Nations report, the number of urban dwellers outpaced that of rural residents for the first time in history. Further, the report projected that 70% of the world's 9.2 billion inhabitants will live in cities by 2050. As the population continues to shift, cities will have to reevaluate how they serve their citizens. One critical component to meeting the needs of residents is the city's communication infrastructure, which is an enabler for "smart city" applications. However, outdated systems in place today are making it difficult for municipalities to deliver on the promise of keeping everyone connected and city systems humming.

In order to attract and retain population, stimulate job growth and ensure public safety, cities must reevaluate current technology to ensure that it's not just keeping up with the current capacity needs, but also delivering a clear and sustainable roadmap for introducing new services that will enhance city life for years to come. Smart-city deployments have the potential to connect municipal services such as smart traffic systems, street lights, public safety, electricity, gas and water services though a standard IP network. At the same time, this network infrastructure also can help address the "digital divide" of underserved residents and create additional social benefits that can ultimately improve education and even the overall economy.

As the key enabler of successful smart-city projects, network infrastructure should be carefully evaluated, selected and deployed. The challenge is that many cities seek to enable a host of applications, all with diverse connectivity requirements that can pose major challenges. Often, each application has very different capacity, coverage, latency, quality-of-service (QoS) and protocol requirements that must be met for seamless delivery. Three of the most commonly deployed smart-city applications and their unique requirements include:

Public safety. Whether it involves government agencies — police, fire and EMS — educational institutions, transit agencies or utilities, public safety and security is a high-priority concern. Emergency personnel need to be able to respond quickly and ensure safety of citizens — whether they are responding to traffic incidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks or other threats. In order to do so, many municipalities employ the use of video surveillance. However, such systems require high bandwidth, which means that running this application over a cellular network would not suffice. Rather, such systems generally require a private wireless network infrastructure.

Power distribution. Today's power distribution system is riddled with inefficiencies, and smart-grid projects have the potential to considerably drive down costs, increase grid reliability and enable integration of renewable energy sources that would help reduce gas emissions. For example, the smart grid can enable real-time communications, as well as monitor and manage power delivery to homes and businesses to reduce electricity costs and improve management and control. A smart city's power-distribution infrastructure therefore will require a network infrastructure with low latency and QoS for mission-critical, automated-distribution devices.

Mobile work force. Across municipal departments, workers need connectivity whenever and wherever — even when they are on the go. Imagine an environment where a first responder can transmit images or perhaps video — taken with a handheld device — of an injured patient, while the patient is in transit to the emergency room, so that doctors can be prepared to immediately treat the condition upon the patient's arrival. As a result, municipalities whose personnel are using graphical user interface (GUI) devices or smartphones may require Wi-Fi connectivity to keep employees connected.

Ultimately, the network infrastructure for a smart city should be a network of networks that uses best-of-breed technology with unified management, which will simplify deployments, reduces costs and enable a reliable network infrastructure. A multipurpose or shared-use network should be able to deploy a common and standard wireless infrastructure that leverages 4G and Wi-Fi 802.11n technologies that enable connectivity to applications and devices. Municipalities also need a wireless solution that can guarantee QoS, and also enable capacity to be added as required and bandwidth to be easily configured.

With all of these network elements in play, the glue that will enable the smart city is a unified network management solution (NMS) that can integrate multiple network elements and allow information to cross between systems. When deployed correctly, the benefits of a unified and holistic network management solution include:

  • Improved services by allowing information to be shared across systems;
  • Enhanced cybersecurity by deploying a unified security policy;
  • Increased public safety by allowing a unified video-surveillance solution;
  • Maximized availability of services through a reliable network infrastructure; and
  • Reduced cost by leveraging the benefits of a shared infrastructure.

Beyond implementing an NMS on top of the wireless infrastructure, further network optimization typically is required for specific smart city applications. For example, 4G was designed for the high downlink and low uplink demands typically needed for Internet users. However, a municipality deploying video-surveillance cameras for public safety would need the opposite uplink/downlink ratio, as video cameras generate high uplink traffic. Providing flexibility between uplink and downlink ratios is an example of how a wireless vendor would need to tune and optimize the network for the benefit of the smart-city project.

While budgets continue to be a challenge nationwide, that should not prevent a municipality from starting a smart-city project. In this regard, it is important that the municipality ensures that its network infrastructure is scalable, in order to allow it to start with small network infrastructure investments and gradually increase investments as it makes progress in the deployment of additional smart-city applications.

Capacity and coverage also are key parameters that typically differ between smart city projects, as both are determined by the size of the city, its density, and the characteristics of the deployed applications. Careful radio planning, optimized connectivity solutions and vendor expertise are paramount in ensuring a reliable network infrastructure.

Given that it is the fourth-largest municipality in the U.S., the city of Houston's smart-city project is a prime example of how a city can transform the urban experience by leveraging communications infrastructure that enhances the quality of life by keeping citizens safe, well-informed and connected. Indeed, the city's 4G wireless broadband project already has had a tremendous impact, while significantly reducing costs.

The project introduced remote control of 2,500 traffic intersections and 1,500 school zone flashers, which improved traffic safety and congestion. For utility customers, remote monitoring of 500,000 smart water meters improved service and reduced costs. Additionally, more than 300,000 residents in underserved communities now have access to free Internet service.

Houston is not the only smart city. Indeed, there are hundreds of municipalities across the globe — among them Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Roissy Porte (France) and Shenyang (China) — that have or are making the move to the smart city. Each deployment has unique needs and requirements, so customized solutions are essential to ensure efficient and effective network projects that can better serve their citizens.

Smart-city initiatives turn municipalities into the networked organisms of the future, bringing new opportunities and fostering collaboration between local governments and the residents they serve. By making smart infrastructure choices that connect all networks and applications, while allowing for holistic management, scalability and capacity control, cities can increase the quality of life, make municipal services more efficient, and promote job growth — all while reducing operational costs.

Eedo Lifshitz is responsible for driving the utility and smart-grid business at Alvarion. He has more than 20 years of experience in IT, networks and applications, and is vice chair of the WiMAX Forum's Smart Grid Work Group.