Innovation in Smart Cities of the future - Part II, Comm. Technologies

Combining macro cells and micro cells into HetNets. A map of Manhattan with existing access points. Credits: Nokia Networks Newsletter

Communications networks have had a long life cycle, at least if compared with the ones in computer area. In the last ten years, however, a quite different evolution pace has marked the edge vs the core. 

In the very beginning of telecommunications, 1876 the business seemed to be the sale of telephones. It should have been up to the buyer of the telephone to roll out the needed wires to connect with another telephone. It didn’t take long, about a year, to realize that the “connectivity” was the most important, and expensive part, that no single “user” could take care of that and the very existence of a connectivity fabric would create the business of selling telephones. Soon after it was realized that the cost in creating such an infrastructure could not be sustained by the sale of telephones. One had to charge for the use of the network resources (at that time mostly wires, but then it came the amplifiers, the switchboard operators, and much more).

The business didn’t change that much in the following 140 years. But now it is changing, and it will change radically in the coming decade. Now the business is in the selling of (cell)phones, not in the network. This does not mean that the network is no longer important, it just means that evolution and market drive is lead by the (cell)phones. The tail is wagging the dog, like it or not.

Technology is now making possible to decentralize, at the edges of the “classical” network most of the functions that used to be centralized in the network. A few more years and the (smart)phones will be an integral part of the overall network, in several cases creating a network by themselves.

This is rooted in the enormous increase in computation and storage and corresponding decrease in cost that is making a smart phone more powerful than a switch. The factor of scale, number of telephones being sold versus network equipment is already unbalanced towards the phones, billions against millions, the economic unbalance is 70 vs 30, again in favor of the phones.

Computation, also in the network resources, is creating a gap between control and transport, with control basically becoming software based (and as such it can be allocated anywhere, in the network, in phones, in service centers…) and transport being so effective that no longer needs to save resources. The pipes are so big that anything goes, doesn’t matter if it is no longer optimized.

It is because of this that already today we are witnessing a growing attention for Software-Defined Network (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) proposing well-known paradigms, since a few years: respectively a clear separation of hardware and software and virtualization. The rediscovered interest in said paradigms (at the basis of SDN and NFV) is most probably motivated by the novelty of the overall context, specifically concerning techno-economic sustainability issues, given the achieved levels of performance of IT, ultra-broadband and the down spiraling cost reductions.

The diversity in the network, also known as heterogeneity, is bringing to the fore the evolution towards HetNets, of which 5G will be a clear example. Several diverse network technologies are used at the same time to create a communication path for a service; that path might consist of several physical paths bundled together. Nokia recently claimed that in the next decade communications in urban environment will be a fabric formed by HetNets, see the figure of access points in Manhattan.

As noticed the edges are playing a most relevant role, and particularly the variety of end user devices, from IoT to smart phones/tablets, cars and so on. These latters will also take (at least partly) control of the network and will be able to use different communications paradigms. 
Store and forward will become widespread for several classes of IoT and cars may become relay points to connect, asynchronously, IoT to the main network.

Smart cities need to have an evolving communication plan that makes use of bottom up comm areas (including private ones) and a variety of overlaid networks, partly deployed as a side effect of other infrastructures like the use of illumination poles to create WiFi networks in Londrina, Brasil.

The sneakernets, that have been used for a while and then have lost importance thanks to the increased capacity and pervasive presence of the communication network may be back, in the form of dynamic asynchronous networks created by cars. 

Smart cities can use their transport infrastructure as sneakernets 2.0, as it is being done in Oporto, Portugal, equipping public buses with WiFi network that provide local connectivity to passengers and can be used to harvest data from around the bus journey and carry it over to other places.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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