The Anatomy of a Smart City



Andy O’Kelly
Chief Architect at eir Business


A smart city sees the use of digital technology and urban big data to deliver a broad range of societal improvements for the citizen by improving control and sustainability of public services, making critical infrastructure more reliable, and making cities safer and more liveable.

This smart city is built on layers of infrastructure with pervasive connectivity, delivered via a variety of networks, under different controls and aligned to different business models of network providers. There are service providers like eir, who typically bring a public (internet) service to consumers and private secure networks to businesses on a wide geographic basis, and are regulated in areas like licences for radio spectrum, market behaviour etc.

Services bought by business customers typically extend into their commercial property and their own private LAN and Wireless LAN infrastructure within. Internet Wi-Fi is frequently provided by businesses within their office or shop premises for non-staff guests or retail visitors, or for services they want to keep outside of their security responsibility and separated from their private networks. The latter might include IoT applications based on internet cloud services.

Local service providers offer services to multiple tenants in a specific shared office campus or business park. A municipal network extends across a wider town or city area, perhaps within a local authority boundary, prompted by interest in services like Wi-Fi for the public in the streets, as well as rapid and convenient network services enabling digital business clusters, or non-commercial test-beds of emergent technology like LoRa (a long range, low power wireless platform for IoT networks).

The challenge of providing city-wide free Wi-Fi

Local authorities with an eye on smart communities are looking to benefit from
IoT efficiency for their own citizen services too. Extending free Wi-Fi services to the public has had a chequered history. Monetisation models where the ‘free’ service is limited in performance while a premium service requires payment, or where citizen data is to be used in an unspecified future advertising model has had limited success.

Some contracts and providers have failed – including a short-lived service for Dublin City provided by Gowex. More recently in New York a free Wi-Fi kiosk service proved controversial, and was withdrawn due to anti-social behaviour clustering around it. Sustainability is the key issue for these networks – once built, who will operate and maintain them, committing to service levels around availability and performance, and ensuring they are secure on an ongoing basis?

The travelling network

Finally there is the consumer network. This exists within the home, connected through broadband/Wi-Fi services. This network also travels with the consumer through their mobile device and includes the ‘Personal Area’ that extends around it for wearable devices and bump payments for instance. Smart technology in the home network is driven by both domestic technology (like Nest) and short-term new consumer product cycles, as well as State co-ordinated initiatives such as the National Smart Meter Programme which are looking at a lifespan of decades. Somewhere in between are home offerings that connect alarms and sensors and devices to a mix of public and private care providers, improving the well-being of elderly or vulnerable people while allowing them to remain at home to the benefit of all.

Network connectivity becomes more fluid

The citizen of a smart city moves across all of these networks as they go about their day. Fluidity is a common characteristic of this experience, which is now less restricted by location and independent of the means of connectivity be it fixed or mobile. Consumer mobile devices already move between (and aggregate) available network services like cellular and Wi-Fi. Likewise ‘Things’ – fixed and mobile sensors on vehicles, robots and drones, public infrastructure like CCTV and ANPR (intelligent traffic system) – require reliable and consistent connectivity suitable for the particular IoT service being supported.

Walking the line between security and innovation

There are issues to be worked through to keep these services secure: authentication around access and usage, particularly where the network is considered a critical infrastructure underpinning automation related to health, safety or community security. As IoT devices deliver more critical services they become potentially more impactful – even lethal – when undermined. Naturally, there is a tension between the security imperative in a smart city and the entrepreneurial desire for openness to encourage innovation, avoid vendor lock-in, and limit draconian Big Brother control. Finding that balance will be an important step in building an effective and accessible smart city.

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eirAndy O’Kelly
Chief Architect at eir Business