Smart cities and Tech Evolution - XVII Connectivity Infrastructure - Transporting bits

The subdivision of Manchester, UK, into black, grey and white areas. The white areas do not generate sufficient return on investment to stimulate private parties to invest for a delivery infrastructure. Grey area provide barely enough to generate return to one investor, black areas are revenue rich and support competition among different providers. Credit: Manchester City

Bits are easy, and cheap, to transport. They are relatively recent, we are in the biz of transporting bits since the 1960ies. Now thanks to sensors, as we have seen, we can basically convert almost anything in bits and transport them over wired, wirelss  and sneakernet infrastructures. We have seen how technology evolution has made the various infrastructures more and more performant.

The question for city planners is how to steer the evolution of bits transporting infrastructures in the best direction to: 

  • make the overall business and citizens wellbeing using them more effective
  • keep the investment to a minimum
  • leverage on the technology evolution in the coming years

The first point is usually the most pressing one. Going for the best possible connectivity infrastructure, say 1 Gbps to everyone, in every place may provide business and citizens with what they dream,  giving business the tools to compete and citizens the best way to get services. However this does not come for free. Hence somebody has to bear the cost. If the cost is covered by the price of accessing the infrastructure many users may backtrack, refusing to use it thus making the investment uselss. If it is covered by the public administration it eventually will burden the economy as a whole.

Hence the importance of the second point: minimize the investment.  This immediately begs the question: whose investment needs to be minimised? The public one, the private one? For some time, particularly in the first decade of this century (before there was basically no discussion on this point, it was seen as a problem, and a market oppotunity, that Operators needed to address and they did, looking at the impact on their balance sheet) the politicians and regulatory bodies feeling was, at least in Europe and US, that telecommunications infrastructures were a private biz and the public administration should make money from this market sector by selling it public resources (spectrum) and taxing it in exchange.

More recently the feeling has changed, once the public authority realised the importance of digital transportation infrastructures for the economic growth and citizens wellbeing and that the economic drive of private Operators was towards bettering the infrastructures where revenues were possible leaving behind poor market areas (sometimes called white/grey areas not producing interesting ROI to sustain investment -white- or competition -grey). This has led, and it is leading, to a public private partnership, PPP, where public administrations co-invest along private parties to ensure a global, Country-wide, bettering of the infrastructures. This applies to cities as well, where private companies tend to focus on areas generating most revenues and disregards areas with low perspective ROI.

This situation is further changing as alternative ways to deploy, improve digital communications infrastructures become available. Rather than having a relationship between a Municipality and one or more established Telecom Operators there is the opportunity for a Municipality to foster development through the engagement of non-telecommunications parties. Some may be infrastructures owners, like water distribution, waste management, public transport, electrical power grid operators. Others can be owners of estate, from malls and shopping centers to residential owners. A Municipality itself can be an infrastructure owner, like light poles for city illumination, parking lots with parking meters…
Radio access is easier on infrastructure cost (particularly in terms of civil engineering cost) hence the entry barriers are lower and this can also stimulate start ups to enter the digital infrastructure market in some niches.

Tying all this together is a smart way to infrastructure a smart city.

In addition, we should notice that a digital communications infrastructure is a balance between transport, storage and processing. There is a number of information that has to be provided in real time (when you ask/send it is to be delivered like messages) but a vast majority can be delivered asynchronously. This applies to most information about the city. This information can be distributed to various beacons and as you pass in the vicinity the information is uploaded to your device (your car, your cell phone….) for later consumption.  Additionally some information can be created on-spot as you get intereted in it by your device, based on the data that are locally available (like a routing from A to B).

A Municipality shall consider the information requirements of its citizens and create a delivery architecture that balances synchronous and asynchronous communication, minimizing the infrastructure investment and selecting the most effective “routing” of information.  Notice the difference between information (that matter to each individual citizen) and data (representing the raw digital material to transform by processing into information).


More of this when dealing with the data fabric.


Author - Roberto Saracco

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