5G is indeed the future, but it’s also the present. According to our US Mobile Index that tracks the trajectory of 5G, as of January 2021, coverage continues to make gains, reaching 75%. By July 2021, 80% of the US population is expected to have 5G coverage. Most is “midband,” rather than super-high performance high-spectrum (“millimeter wave”) 5G, but midband 5G is already transformational.
Compared to 4G, this existing 5G can support ten times as many sensors, transmitting ten times as much data in one tenth the time. Once millimeter wave 5G is up and running too all, that should improve at least another tenfold.
Imagine how life will be when we can transmit one hundred times the data, one hundred times faster, at one hundredth the cost. Already, 5G can improve people’s lives and create new revenue in ways impossible just a few years ago. Cities must take advantage of this existing 5G right now, while getting ready for the even faster version that is on its way.
Here are just a few examples of what the 5G network currently being rolled out can support, and what the even better network will support tomorrow.
Transit. Smarter parking and traffic management, for everything from reduced congestion to automated tolling, along with (once millimeter wave 5G arrives) support for autonomous vehicles.
Energy. A smart, bi-directional energy grid, to optimize distributed generation and transmission — and eventually autonomous vehicles’ energy needs.
Environment. The 5G-powered traffic management, energy grid, and e-mobility will make cities greener. So will 5G’s capacity to make telecommuting seamless and to monitor businesses and homes for environmental risks.
Education. Interactive distance learning, via chat and video, as well as (with millimeter wave 5G) immersive lessons through virtual & augmented reality.
Healthcare. Instant distance access to medical records, chronic condition management, and homecare services today, while tomorrow’s 5G will make all kinds of telemedicine (including AI-powered diagnoses and telesurgery) a reality.
Public services. Fuller citizen engagement (including in smart city initiatives), efficiencies such as fast and flexible e-permits, and real-time tracking of government programs to slash waste and corruption.
Society. By supporting a more sustainable city, with greater access for all citizens to healthcare, mobility, education, and government services, ever faster 5G can support ever more growth, jobs, digital upskilling, and social equity.
Even as the 5G rollout accelerates, cities face three big challenges.
The first is infrastructure. To achieve hyper-fast, high spectrum 5G, cities need a small cell revolution: Instead of the scattered giant towers that support today’s wireless network, millimeter wave 5G will require a dense network of radio access nodes — as many as one per city block.
The second challenge is data. With sensors constantly collecting highly information on residents, cities will need to address data security and privacy needs.
The third big challenge is financial. Many 5G initiatives require concentrated investments but have diffuse beneficiaries. For example, faster traffic flows due to 5G-supported smart traffic management are clearly beneficial to everyone who lives in a city, but it may not be clear who and how to charge for it.
To be 5G-powered smart cities tomorrow, cities today should adopt three priorities:
Start with a testbed. Listen to what citizens and businesses say they most need and want from 5G services and from small cell placement. Start small, with a neighborhood, and prioritize services that consumers and businesses will pay for.
Build the foundation. The data that 5G can collect and transmit is a smart city’s foundation, so get all seven governance layers right: data categories, consent, collection, anonymization, storage, access and monetization.
Construct new relationships. Cities and businesses must partner in new ways, steadily advancing through the three tiers: from traditional contracting structures, to the private sector independently developing new services for 5G-enhanced digital infrastructure, to whole new business models built on a 5G-powered digital ecosystem.
With these priorities, cities will have a headstart on overcoming the top 5G-related challenges — and they will be well on their way to becoming the smart cities of tomorrow.