Recently, in what has become a recurrent conversation with many city managers and innovators, I was presented with the juxtaposition of a city wanting to become smarter — and to provide better outcomes for its community — and the challenges of doing so with a limited budget and an unclear path on how to progress. Cities are uniquely presented with massive data opportunities. So, to make their city smart, leaders need not only to be able to gather data but to do something with it in order to gain insights and enable the smart decisions. What is driving cities to want to become “smart”? Often, it is pressure brought about by increasing urbanization and population density. Urbanization brings with it a range of challenges and opportunities. On the opportunity side for cities, increasing urbanization allows for scaled use of resources, increased employment opportunities and increased economic activity. The challenges that accompany this growth can be recognized and alleviated with the use of the internet of things (IoT); a city becomes smarter when it gathers, organizes and manages data in a way that allows for insights and better decisions.
Using IoT, a smart city can gather intelligence to better understand where and when to apply resources and improve efficiency. The same IoT technologies can gather information from sensors and provide data points on the relationship between elements of the city. By gathering and analyzing data, a smart city can improve its decision-making, its sustainability and the quality of life for the people who live there.
Another question I often hear from city management is, “What is the right way to start the journey to becoming a smarter city?” Each city must begin by understanding its current challenges and envisioning future challenges, especially those that population growth may bring. From there, a city needs to develop a clear view or vision of desired outcomes. Decisions will need to be made about what data will be collected, what the city envisions for its involvement in data collection, other entities that might be involved in data collection and how will this data be managed. In short, which technologies should be used for a city to collect and manage data points.
The following information will discuss and present some key requirements for consideration when selecting the right communications technology to enable a smart city.
When selecting a technology to enable a city to be smart, it is key to anticipate the desired outcomes, estimated costs and potential return on investment. As an innovative CIO recently mentioned to me — and I paraphrase — “We don’t want this initiative to be a great shiny thing today and become a burden to the city tomorrow.”
So, what makes for a good or even great IoT communications technology? First, low-power, wide-area networks (LPWANs), are the best choice for massive IoT, where many thousand sensors are deployed. It is the author’s experience that of the LPWANs available, LoRaWAN networking protocol developed by LoRaWAN Alliance offers cities the widest array of benefits. The reason is because the protocol is an open standard that is flexible, scalable, efficient and interoperable across the needs of the city. Open standards make for longevity and encourage an ecosystem to compete and engage, reducing risk for both tech manufacturers and cities alike. To ensure the LoRaWAN standard is implemented correctly, the LoRa Alliance offers a comprehensive certification program that provides cities the confidence that devices will be reliable and compliant to the standard, thus reducing the potential support costs and ensures interoperability. LoRaWAN’s longevity was further secured in December 2021, when it became a standard officially approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The LoRaWAN open standard is managed and promoted by the LoRa Alliance (https://lora-alliance.org/ an open, nonprofit association of members since 2015. Among the members are multinational telecommunication companies, equipment manufacturers, systems integrators, sensor manufacturers, entrepreneurial start-ups, semiconductor companies and research institutions.
Smart cities need coverage where and when it is needed. LoRaWAN is uniquely placed to provide truly scalable and ubiquitous coverage due to the unique device to cloud architecture designed from inception to allow for a range of deployment options. LoRaWAN’s best in class penetrative capability facilitates coverage indoor, outdoor and even to underground locations. This is essential to connect the distributed endpoints across a city.
One pivotal strength of LoRaWAN is its ability to support thousands of devices per gateway. The precise number of devices will vary depending on the configuration, but suffice it to say that the advanced communications architecture that allows for redundancy across gateways facilitates true scale at a reasonable cost.
Additionally, one of the most important attributes of any LPWAN technology is the power consumption required at the device. For a smart city strategy to be successful and sustainable, there is a strong need for low cost. Two of the drivers of cost in any technology are maintenance and ongoing operation. A profound benefit of LoRaWAN is the very low power consumption required by the sensor or device, which results in extended battery life. A quick back-of-the-envelope analysis on this topic alone will be a defining factor in the selection of what communications technology is right for your smart city deployment. LoRaWAN offers 3 to 7 times better battery life, resulting in material cost savings over the life of the device.
LoRaWAN deployments are flexible both technologically and commercially. From a technology perspective, LoRaWAN network infrastructure is flexible, allowing for gateways or collection points to be distributed across the city at a very low cost because of the small physical footprint and power needs. Gateways can be mounted indoor or outdoor, installed on buildings or towers or even inside street furniture. This flexibility is enabled via a vast and growing ecosystem of manufacturers that meet the needs of all deployment requirements.
LoRaWAN network flexibility also provides a city choice when it is deciding to build a private network, buy into a public network or select a hybrid of the two. Cities have the choice to build their own LoRaWAN network using open standard and hardware and software available globally or elect to work with technology vendors on a fully managed solution and even elect to make use of the skills and experience of more than 166 LoRaWAN operators globally. Finally, the ability to roam across these various types of commercial deployment options via the established standards means LoRaWAN provides the ultimate in commercial flexibility.
No discussion on smart city technology choice is complete without considering security and data privacy. Once again, this was considered from the ground up design and development of LoRaWAN. The cornerstone of LoRaWAN security is the use of 2 x 128-bit AES encryption keys to define both network and application level security. The author encourages the examination of content on security, which is available on the LoRa Alliance website, for a comprehensive coverage of the security topic (https://lora-alliance.org/security/ ).
Finally, I would like to draw attention to the subject of application use cases. All the features provided by LoRaWAN enable the widest variety and selection of devices and sensors to feed into the plethora of use cases which cities will want to examine and explore. From working with cities across the world, I also note another recurring theme, and that is that budgets are restricted, and the cities themselves have varied and often siloed departments. These departments will often have needs for different outcomes and use cases. Whether this be the need to understand and manage air quality (indoor and outdoor), streetlights, recreational assets, waste, water, building and parking, people counting, traffic management and so on, a LoRaWAN network can be deployed to support all these use cases and more.
Thanks to the ubiquitous architecture of LoRaWAN, where a single coverage model can enable the vast majority of low-bandwidth use cases, using LoRaWAN at the core of your deployment will be key to maximizing your smart city investment. A high return on investment (ROI) is achievable because of LoRaWAN’s choice, flexible commercial models, the scale of the ecosystem and best in breed operational costs.
LoRaWAN is ideally suited to be the technology of choice for smart cities globally. It enables cities to confidently embark on or continue their smart initiatives that will result in better data, greater insights and, ultimately, improved decisions for their community to assist and build a more sustainable, livable and efficient city.
Tony Tilbrook is chief technology officer and chief operating officer at NNNCo. He also serves as LoRaWAN ambassador and chairs the Smart City Work Group for the LoRa Alliance.