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5G Enables Smart City Innovation
Jon Glasco15. April 202111 min read

5G Enables Smart City Innovation

Mobile operators worldwide are investing in 5G networks, and proponents of this much-hyped technology believe it will enable a new wave of smart city development. According to the IEEE, "5G is not just an evolutionary upgrade of the previous generation of cellular networks. It is a revolutionary technology … and a critical piece of the smart city puzzle."

By providing higher data rates, increased traffic capacity, ultra-low latency, and high connection density, 5G offers opportunities for urban innovators striving to create smart city services in the pandemic era and beyond. This article considers how 5G empowers innovation in smart mobility, remote work, online education, and telehealth.


Making urban mobility smarter

5G can revolutionize the way we travel and commute in smart cities. Through real-time delivery of information on traffic conditions, congestion, crowding, and public transit services, 5G paves the way to making urban mobility safer, faster, and more responsive.

Reinventing public transport

The need to travel safely while maintaining social distancing presents a new challenge for public transport operators. Advanced connectivity and timely transit information delivered to smartphones are must-have features for passengers who expect public transport to adjust to usage patterns and unsafe situations.

Government Technology magazine says that “avoiding crowded places is vital for rider safety as transit agencies navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Information about crowding enables operators to improve platform comfort and safety with timely interventions such as assigning relief buses to manage the overcrowding.” Consider Transit Wireless - a network operator serving subway riders in New York City - whose mission is to keep more than one million daily passengers connected, informed, and safe. The Transit Wireless network, operated as a public-private partnership with the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is designed to meet future needs by making the network ready for 5G. In conjunction with the Internet of Things (IoT) and crowd management tools, 5G should enable transport operators to improve their response to overcrowding and deliver information to passengers on safer routes and vehicles.

To recover from the pandemic, safe and dependable public transport is essential. “With adequate investment and renewed respect for public transport, the sector can make the necessary changes to help entice commuters to get back on trains, buses, metros, and trams.” José Francisco Monserrat, a researcher at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and advisor to the World Bank, believes “the biggest change that 5G will bring will be shared cars as a form of public transportation.” Montserrat says “we are moving toward a hybrid model of public and private transportation because this can be provided by smaller vehicles that only carry a few people, but are available for public use.” Taking this vision a step further, 5G would enable a public transport hybrid model with autonomous vehicles, producing an unprecedented amount of data.

Improved traffic management and smarter vehicles

Traffic Technology Today says “one of the most important changes that 5G can bring about is making the daily commute to the office much faster. … Most transportation agencies rely on outdated schedules and technology, resulting in poorly-timed lights” and lengthy commutes. A city’s traffic management system equipped with 5G technology “allows traffic lights to receive real-time data about traffic patterns from cameras, sensors, and drones.” The result is that the system is more responsive to traffic fluctuations. Tests performed at Carnegie Mellon University indicate this application of 5G should reduce commute times by up to 26 per cent. Other automotive use cases include automated parking, vehicle health monitoring, and high-definition map sharing.


Enhancing remote work and remote learning

History will likely see the pandemic through multiple lenses - as a global tragedy and as a time of structural and irreversible change when organizations shifted rapidly to telework solutions and schools leaped from traditional to online classrooms.

Remote work demands high-performance tech

In the public and private sectors, the pandemic led to a massive increase in remote workers and demand for high-performance interactive technologies. Zoom and Microsoft Teams became essential tools - with the usage of Teams increasing from 20 million to 75 million active daily users between late 2019 and early 2020. According to Vonage, "5G technology enables remote work capabilities like no network before. … and 5G technology also represents the first time a mobile data solution offers the scale and bandwidth needed to serve as a viable replacement for home and business broadband.”

The switch to remote work received plenty of attention in 2020, but working in home offices and other remote locations increased before the pandemic. From 2015 to 2017, “there was a “159 percent increase in the number of people working remotely,” based on FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics survey. However, people encountered tech barriers in working remotely. Unpredictable WiFi services. Slow download speeds. Poor quality video calls. These issues made it difficult to interact online with co-workers, customers, and business partners. “5G will be 100 times faster and 5 times more responsive than today’s networks,” according to the Consumer Technology Association. This technology leap presents an opportunity for 5G to modernize remote work. “Over the next five years, 5G will enable the workforce to become more distributed,” says David Linthicum, Chief Cloud Strategy Officer at Deloitte Consulting, “You can be anywhere and have access to unlimited bandwidth.”

Online education disrupts traditional learning

In the education sector, pandemic-induced school closures disrupted traditional teaching practices and increased the demand for video, digital and multimedia services. "At the pandemic’s peak, 1.6 billion learners in 194 countries were out of the classroom”, according to UNESCO. Teaching and learning methods changed overnight when schools were forced to implement digital alternatives to in-person classroom methods.

Julie Young, vice president of education outreach and student services at Arizona State University, writes that "the pandemic has certainly challenged any notions of a 'typical' school model. Indeed, if there is any commonality among schools right now, it is that 'typical' may no longer exist. … The switch to tech-supported learning is permanent.” Education experts claim that replacing (or at least augmenting) traditional classroom teaching with digital alternatives can boost retention by up to 60 percent and “make teaching more efficient by freeing up teachers to focus on the delivery of lessons” … while allowing students to work at their own pace.

ViewSonic, a leading education technology firm, defines three models - with various degrees of online learning - as alternatives to traditional classroom methods:

  • Blended learning - where online self-study supplements classroom teaching
  • Hybrid learning - where synchronous classes are delivered in-person and online at the same time
  • Fully online - where courses are taught entirely online

Online education depends on affordable internet and broadband access. However, a survey by the EdWeek Research Center indicates a majority of educators in the U.S. say “at least some of their students still don’t have sufficient internet access at home. … Only 11 percent of respondents said all students in their school or district have the level of home internet access they need to fully participate in remote instruction.” Slow internet speeds add another dimension to the problem. For families with multiple remote learners - and with parents working at home - slow speeds “make school tasks like videoconferencing or completing homework assignments next to impossible.”

5G technologies offer opportunities to enhance the learning experience by improving access to broadband and internet services, virtual classrooms, videoconferencing, cloud-based learning apps, and large file transfers. With public-private collaboration to develop 5G solutions, students can benefit from a new generation of immersive and engaging online learning.

Improving access to telehealth

As a promising concept, telehealth has been around for a while, but gaining a foothold in the pre-pandemic era was a tough sell for telehealth advocates. The pandemic exposed an urgent need for technology to support remote consultation, diagnosis, treatment, and emergency services.

"Telehealth is currently under the spotlight because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors and nurses need to deal with the usual injuries and illnesses in addition to COVID-19 and do so remotely in many cases. … 5G technology is needed to better address the amounts of telehealth information being generated," says Ee Huei Sin, Vice President and General Manager at Keysight Technologies.

5G is emerging as a change agent in preventive medicine through its impact on wearable devices. Vishal Gondal, CEO and Founder at GOQii, predicts that 5G "will revolutionize the wearables industry" by allowing higher volumes of data and faster data transmission rates when processing health information. Gondal says 5G will "change how preventive healthcare is practiced. In the current pandemic, it has become inevitable that technology is continuously being harnessed for contact tracing, temperature monitoring, and reducing the spread."

Emergency treatment is another telehealth application that should benefit from 5G. The First Responders pilot project at 5G Barcelona (a public-private initiative) demonstrated how 5G is used in the first moments of a medical emergency. During the pilot, a police officer responds to a simulated situation where a child suffers an epileptic seizure. Wearing a voice-operated headset equipped with a camera—and using 5G to connect with a local emergency service unit—the officer initiates an emergency procedure. By sharing high-quality video and receiving instructions from a physician, the officer gives treatment to stabilize the young patient.

5G information and disinformation - citizens need clarity

The steady march toward 5G deployment worldwide is not without its critics who claim that 5G services are undifferentiated from the previous generation of 4G networks. Some citizens are not convinced of the potential value of 5G.

A recent survey by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) and market research firm Ipsos reveals that most Europeans know what 5G is, “but they struggle to truly understand its value. Making matters worse, an alarming amount of disinformation regarding its safety persists.” The ETNO survey (based on interviews in 23 EU countries) “shows that one in three respondents get their information from social media,” although these sources are among the least trusted.” By contrast, only 8 percent of respondents learned about 5G from government sources” - even though ranked as reliable sources. ETNO believes the survey is a call to action for government leaders and telecom service providers.

Next steps for smart city leaders
and partners

Local government leaders and urban innovators should recognize that 5G is more than just another new technology and consider how it will reshape smart cities in the next decade - exerting an impact on all socioeconomic sectors.

Harvesting the smart city benefits of 5G in a post-pandemic world depends on partnerships between local governments and other actors in the 5G ecosystem. In a Smart Cities Dive post, Eric Woods, Research Director at Navigant Research, said "smart city development has always prioritized the need for partnerships. … and 5G brings new requirements and opportunities for an ecosystem of city partners.”    

Peter Linder, Ericsson’s Head of 5G Marketing in North America, writes that "5G is transforming the mobile ecosystem." The traditional, well-defined industry consists of three major stakeholder groups - mobile service providers, network technology partners, and smartphone providers, who “collaborate closely to build the foundation used by millions of mobile app providers,” says Linder, who explains that 5G standardization stretches the mobile ecosystem by opening windows of opportunity for new members, solutions and applications. In addition to the traditional stakeholders, Linder says the expanding ecosystem includes vertical industry anchors (who apply 5G to solve specific problems), system integrators (who work with industry anchors), device innovators, and application creators.

A tricky question for city governments and civic partners is how to establish a role in the expanding 5G ecosystem. Daniel Sarasa, Managing Director of the Zaragoza City of Knowledge Foundation, says that smart cities should “engage in publicly funded experimental 5G pilots, with the cooperation of the private sector when possible (mostly municipal contractors) to run experiments on new service deployment. Cities could also engage in a conversation with telco operators about data, following the examples of Barcelona in the 22 @ innovation district and the Bristol is Open project.” 5G services must reach all parts of smart cities to deliver quality-of-life benefits to all segments of society. “If 5G deployment is left to private initiative alone, it will only be deployed where it is profitable and the most disadvantaged neighborhoods ... will be logically excluded," says Sarasa.

To reach disadvantaged areas and reduce the digital divide, one approach is for local governments "to play a direct role in providing internet service - in many cases by building their own or relying on their own infrastructure” to establish community wireless networks with affordable broadband and internet services. With an eye to the future, urban innovators can explore 5G partnering opportunities for home broadband, online learning, and remote work solutions.

Smart city leaders can take steps to increase local government’s sphere of influence and ensure deployment of 5G networks add to urban quality of life by:

  • Cultivating an urban ecosystem of 5G partners from public and private sectors
  • Supporting 5G pilots, demonstrators, entrepreneurs, and university initiatives
  • Creating a dialogue with citizens to build trust and clarify the benefits and safety of 5G technology
  • Cooperating with 5G standards bodies, mobile operators, and infrastructure vendors
  • Using municipal infrastructure to foster equitable deployment of 5G networks and inclusive services

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Jon Glasco

Jon Glasco is a freelance consultant and writer focused on innovation in smart cities and smart urban mobility. He has experience in executive and consulting roles in the telecommunications, mobile operator, public transport, government and professional service sectors. Jon holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.