3GPP: Smart Cities Should Engage With Mobile Standards Developers

In late 2019, the mobile standards-making body 3GPP—Third Generation Partnership Project—held a plenary meeting in Spain with attendance of more than 400 international experts. Although an important meeting in terms of technical standards evolution, it was not an event that captured much attention in smart city headlines.

Why should smart city planners care about 3GPP? The answer lies in much-hyped 5G technology which promises a seismic shift in new opportunities. Smart city media reports are filled with predictions that 5G will serve as an enabler of urban innovation. 3GPP is a global initiative spearheading development of 5G standards—the building blocks for interoperability and design of smart city services.

Engagement with standards-making organizations and events should provide opportunities for smart city innovators to discover new solutions in urban mobility, telework, smart grid, smart lighting, public safety and crisis management.

According to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), more than 1800 standards already impact smart cities. Michael J. Mulquin, Chair of the IEC Smart Cities Committee, suggests three categories of smart city standards: basic standards for city operations; new standards for incremental improvements; and “big picture standards that focus on citywide transformation.” Big picture standards are the standards that cities need to solve big problems.

In the world of mobile technology evolution, 3GPP manages a standardization process through a system of technical releases. Each 3GPP release consists of a bundle of standards, provides “a stable platform for the implementation of features at a given point and allows for addition of new functionality in subsequent releases.”

In 2017, 3GPP announced the initial delivery of Release 15, a standalone 5G standard. This was considered a major step for the mobile industry, but it only scratched the surface of 5G opportunities. Release 15 allowed 3GPP partners to work toward new releases of the 5G standard and enrich the mobile ecosystem with innovation in devices, services and business models. Release 16, scheduled for completion in 2020, covers a mix of new features including vehicle-to-everything (V2X) services, 5G satellite access, local area network support, and wireless and wireline convergence. “More 5G system enhancements are set to follow in Release 17, scheduled for delivery in 2021.”

Should mobile standards evolution be managed through a process dominated by high-tech companies, national governments and supranational organizations? Or should urban planners engage with standards-making experts to ensure smart city requirements are addressed in the standards process?

At the 3GPP meeting in Spain, Adrian Scrase, CTO, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and Head of the 3GPP Mobile Competence Center said: “In the standards community, we need to understand smart city requirements, but we have a communications gap with chief technology officers in cities. By closing this gap, we can clarify how 3GPP and 5G standards affect smart city opportunities, especially in regard to IoT, smart grid and connected vehicle communications.”

Visions of a 5G-Enabled Future

Babak Beheshti, Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at the New York Institute of Technology, says “5G is an enabling technology for IoT, and as smart cities essentially rely on IoT to function, 5G and smart cities are inextricably linked. As such, 5G will play a critical role in allowing information gathered through sensors to be transmitted in real time.”

A report from the European project NGIoT (Next Generation Internet of Things) says “the vision is that 5G and IoT solutions will create the smart cities of tomorrow, where humans and technology interact in connected and intelligent ecosystems. Municipalities will be able to turn infrastructure like roads, streetlights and traffic signals into smart city resources that deliver real-time data and information.”

A challenge for smart cities is to identify the impact of new standards and technologies and determine how 5G standards development creates (or constrains) opportunities for urban innovation.

Different Languages, Different Agendas

Communicating with high-tech vendors and standards experts often presents a challenge for urban planners. The technologist’s language—spoken in a blizzard of acronyms—sounds like a foreign language in city hall. And it’s not only a problem of a techno-centric language hurdle. The contrast in short-term versus long-term thinking is another concern. City leaders and urban innovators must show how smart city investments deliver benefits to citizens, local businesses, emergency services, schools, libraries, health care providers and other entities. “In comparison to our standards development process, cities have a relatively short-term focus,” says Scrase. “Cities want to show a return on investment within a brief time frame, whereas in the standards community, we are concerned with innovation that requires a long-term vision.”

Mulquin says that “standards talk about technical issues, while people worry about things like air or water quality. He suggests packages of standards that address issues citizens can relate to.” Scrase believes 3GPP offers key capabilities for IoT solutions in the public sector, but the challenge is how to translate standards development to ensure it is relevant and understandable in the smart city context.

Smart City Opportunities and Solutions

5G offers a digital architecture opportunity for network slicing which “enables the network elements and functions to be easily configured and reused in each network slice to meet a specific requirement,” says Beheshti. “5G effectively allows a network slice to be a low-security, low bandwidth network for one application and a high-security, high-reliability slice for another application.”

Smart city opportunities inspired by 5G standards evolution include low-latency applications (for autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications), innovation in healthcare and e-health services, remote working and e-learning services, solutions for digital and social inclusion, urban IoT solutions (for smart metering, traffic management, smart parking, building management and smart lighting control), and improved emergency communications for frontline workers (enabling high-priority, always-connected multimedia services).

Innovation enabled by 5G also benefits research such as the EcoCASA project at BISITE—a leading research institute at the University of Salamanca which offers specialized research for smart city solutions. Javier Parra, a researcher at BISITE, says “the EcoCASA Project intends to create an innovative platform to enable a change in the behavior of residential energy consumers.” The EcoCASA platform is designed to enable energy-efficient habits and allow significant reductions in energy consumption and emissions. “Whereas the EcoCASA design was originally based on low-level communication protocols, 5G will provide the EcoCASA platform with higher performance, more stable connections, improved latency and increased security,” explains Parra.

In the near future, technology leaders and smart cities should have new opportunities to create innovative and interoperable digital services through deployment of standardized 5G networks. David Fraser, a technology specialist at Intel, believes industry standards “are the building blocks for interoperability and drive horizontal ecosystems, which in turn enable rapid innovation.” Fraser says creating an environment “based on standards and interoperability is fundamental to ensure the widespread adoption of smart cities. […] Standards such as those developed by 3GPP for 5G will ensure the devices deployed in smart cities can communicate.”

Gianni Minetti, CEO of Paradox Engineering, said in a Smart Cities World article that “interoperability means a city can have just one standards-based network to manage and control multiple urban applications—from street lighting, public parking and power distribution to solid waste collection, video surveillance and emergency-support services, and more—without being tied to a single vendor or legacy technology.”

As emphasized in a World Sensing article, cities need to stay on top of standards development. “Not only will it help them build their reputation and world standing if they adhere to national and international standards, but the changing nature of these standards will guide cities in their smart city planning and strategy.”

Interoperability for a New Normal — and the Next Crisis

Events in 2020 serve as painful reminders that smart city innovation must be proactive in terms of emergency communications and crisis planning. Crises can strike cities at any time and in unpredictable ways. The coronavirus pandemic shows that a crisis can escalate quickly and get out of control—often with tragic results. In these crises, frontline workers need flexible and interoperable emergency communications, broadband services and field-proven apps.

The coronavirus impact led to a new normal in the frontline workforce. The traditional frontline—emergency call centers, ambulance operators, hospital and medical staff and law enforcement—is now augmented by volunteers, broadband technicians, pharmacists, grocery stores, takeout food services, delivery services, truck drivers, public transport operators and non-profit entities. When responding to health emergencies and other crises, local governments and private sector partners need interoperable communications with frontline resources and citizens.

Smart city planners can prepare for future emergencies by taking steps—in cooperation with standards groups and technology suppliers—to ensure 5G services, smart devices and apps for crisis situations become standardized, interoperable tools.

Featured Photo on the cover of this article by Sherzod Max Z on Unsplash

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Jon Glasco

Freelance writer and journalist. Writing about smart cities, smart mobility, urban innovation and other issues affecting quality of urban life. Accomplished technical author with experience in writing and editing bid documents, business plans, strategy documents, information memoranda, thought leadership books and technical publications. Background in telecommunications, IT, public transport, intelligent mobility, professional services and the public sector.