by Lux Maharaj, Director, Africa Sales, Parallel Wireless
In just another two years, Africa is going to transform from being the largest rural continent to the fastest urbanizing continent in the world. The rapid pace of urbanization comes with a host of challenges. Infrastructure will be stretched beyond the limit affecting the quality of the services provided to the citizens.
The current urban spaces are clearly incapable of providing a sustainable living to the growing urban population. What can African countries do to meet this challenge? Smart City is emerging as a popular option to address the problems faced by increasing urban population.
Smart Cities use technology and the huge amount of data generated by their citizens to connect people and devices and to optimize resources and enhance overall quality of city life. Energy-savings and environment-friendly technologies ensure sustainable development.
Smart City consists of millions and millions of sensors and devices connected through a communications network. It consists of many smaller networks connected to a bigger network. It effectively uses Information and Communications Technologies to provide a better managed and sustainable city life.
Countries across the continent have started to experiment with the smart cities. Nigeria has launched Nigerian Smart Cities initiative to use Information and Communication Technologies for enhancing the quality of urban life. Rwanda came up with Smart Cities Blueprint last year to help foster the use of technology in urban management. Since the African countries are at early stages of urbanization, it is right time for them to utilize the latest technologies to solve the problems of urban living.
Scalable, reliable and agile telecom networks are the foundations of any smart city initiative. Smart City demands ubiquitous coverage which facilitates a number of innovative use cases, including connected cars, smart home and more. It carries information from one device/sensor to another and also records data usage, thus allowing the city administration to provide innovative services to the users at all times.
While some of the use cases, including connected vehicles and connected home, have captured the imagination of one and all, there are other use cases in public transport, waste management and others, which promise to transform the lives of urban citizens. Smart city also can potentially make public safety and mission-critical applications much more efficient.
The present-day networks were not built for connected sensors and devices and thus are incapable of meeting the demands of a smart city network. Ubiquitous network with capability to gather and analyze the data generated by the machines is a pre-requisite for a successful smart city deployment. This is the crucial aspect of a smart city since it is this data which provides insights to the Government and the vendors on the usage patterns and allows them to come up with more targeted products.
Smart Cities are a massive opportunity for the service providers to enhance their existing revenue streams. This is especially relevant since the telcos around the world, including in Africa, are coping up with reduced profits and margins because of competition from Over-The-Top (OTT) players. A new revenue stream is of particular relevance to the service providers.
So, what do service providers need to do to prepare for Smart City?
The present-day networks are not geared to connect millions and millions of networks. The service providers need to include new age technologies, such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) as part of their network strategy to be able to meet the smart city challenge. Virtualization allows the service providers to add the much-needed flexibility and agility to the networks.
Traditionally the telecom networks are very hardware-centric but this approach is unlikely to work in the Internet of Things (IoT) era where they need to connect billions of sensors and devices. Agility is also required for the speedier introduction of new functions and services easily. Virtualization approach enables this. Further, it allows service providers to scale as and when required in line with the changing demands of the market. This approach also encourages automation of the network, which is also necessary for a successful smart city deployment.
Another fundamental requirement of smart city is prioritization of services. This is crucial to any smart city because it is this feature that allows the administration to ensure the availability of critical services at all times. For instance, the Government would want the first responders to be able to send images and location in case of a disaster. This is obviously more important than a teenager sending selfies to a friend.
The concept of network slicing allows this. Network slicing divides the network into different parts to provide support to different types of services.
The service providers have started using these technologies to prepare the networks for smart city and Internet of Things (IoT). We are on the cusp of the everything-connected era and the sooner the telcos adopt new technologies and upgrade the networks better prepared they would be to take advantage of the vast potential of IoT. An early mover advantage can help the service providers take a crucial lead in a highly competitive market.
The African countries can use these technologies to overhaul the networks to provide the best-in-class urban living to their citizens. This is the right time for the city administrations to adopt these technologies to take the urban living to the next level.