No city can be smart without these…

Thursday, 12 March 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Professor Rohan Samarajiva and Jelmer Kuyvenhoven

The smart city can be described in multiple ways. But what will be common in all will be massive data flows from things and people, the extraction of insights from those flows, and actions based on such insights. This poses challenges for traditional telecom policy and regulation. It will also require local-government bodies to do things they have never done before. 

Regulatory challenges

To connect everything, including people, vehicles and devices in homes and offices, low-latency and high-capacity wireless connectivity will be necessary. But that would also mean taking optical-fibre cables capable of hauling the larger data volumes over distance much closer to roads, enterprises and homes. 

The ongoing phasing out of dependence on microwave will have to be speeded up. Rights of way, particularly on roads, will be critical, as will which entities will be allowed to use lampposts and similar structures that can house last-meter antennae under what conditions. Mobile network operators want to know where, how and at what cost they can roll out their 5G network before 5G licenses are purchased and they commit to associated obligations.

Facilities-based competition (where each company builds its own infrastructure and relies less on good regulation) is common in developing countries. It will be impractical in the new circumstances, bringing the need for effective regulation ensuring cost-based and non-discriminatory access to shared facilities to the fore. Because land, roadways and fixtures such as lampposts have traditionally been under the authority of local-government bodies, the complexity of regulation will increase as will the problems caused by lack of regulatory capacity. 

Should laws be changed to move the authority up to more senior levels of government? Should regulators change their approach towards network sharing? Mobile network operators want to know to what extent they can share their 5G infrastructure before investing. Clarity will reduce risks for investors and thereby benefit society.

Lessons from Europe

In the Netherlands, a densely populated West-European country, rights-of-way regulation has been favourable to infrastructure rollout. All network service providers (currently over 770) have had the right to lay cable since market liberalisation in 1997 (in contrast to Sri Lanka where the incumbent SLT was running to court repeatedly asserting a doubtful monopoly). Municipalities are obliged to allow cable laying but have a coordinating role. They must have in place a local framework which defines procedures and technical conditions.

This has resulted in an extensive nationwide fibre infrastructure with 400,000 km of ducts of which 75 percent were filled by 2017. This infrastructure is owned by multiple parties, with often overlapping infrastructure. There is a vibrant market for wholesale connectivity.

Businesses located in high-profile business parks have a choice of a wide range of fibre offerings. In these locations, operators have fully utilised the rights-of-way rules and have put more than enough capacity in the ground. In smaller business parks customers often still depend on copper-based access. This has led to a range of local initiatives for fibre rollout. 

Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) initiatives for consumers initially focused on rural areas. The reason was that copper wires in these areas were too long for DSL service. Recently, more fibre initiatives have commenced in bigger cities because of increased demand. 

To support 5G rollout the Dutch Government has chosen a similar approach as it did for cables and fibre 20 years ago: The new telecom law stipulates that municipalities must allow the installation of equipment for small cells on public infrastructure such as lamp posts and traffic lights. All reasonable requests must be accepted; municipalities are entitled to recover costs. 

But what is reasonable? What costs can be recovered? How many operators can be accommodated on the existing roads and fixtures? The Association of Dutch Municipalities with the assistance of expert consultants is seeking to come up with answers and to build up their internal capacity on these new and complex subjects. 

Priorities for Sri Lanka

In light of the lessons emerging from international experience, it is important to avoid local government authorities from being tempted to sign exclusive agreements before becoming fully informed of the implications. 

What positive contributions can be made by higher levels of government? What network and facility sharing will be allowed? Is there value in providing general guidelines and model contracts, while allowing for normal negotiations to take place, perhaps backed up by some forms of low-cost dispute resolution mechanisms?

When lamp posts and similar public fixtures become sophisticated sensing devices that pull in massive amounts of data, questions of who has access to the data under what terms will become important. Issues of data protection, security, privacy, competition will have to be addressed. Location and tracking of individuals have obvious privacy implications; if entities other than licensed telecom operators collect and process data, the location of the data and safeguards against data breaches must be defined. 

Competition can be affected by differential access to aggregated data that can generate insights on footfall and congregations which is vital for store-location and advertising decisions. In New York City, the city government was offering footfall and related insights to small businesses for a fee, hoping to level the playing field for them in relation to retail giants.

Especially because so much is at stake in the success of Port City, it is time to start thinking about what all levels of government can do to prepare for smart-city developments. First and most important is for those with authority over telecom policy and local-government authorities to understand the issues, while avoiding getting locked into exclusive arrangements. Focus must be on fiberisation and on making spectrum available for last-mile connectivity. 

In the short term, 5G will mainly be used to supply superior-quality broadband to businesses and consumers. Municipalities in rural areas should therefore also engage in this discussion because coverage requirements often are connected to 5G licenses.

At the national level, the possibilities of network sharing must be fully explored, including legal and engineering issues. Opening markets by increasing the licenses for fixed networks may also be considered in order to allow wholesale fibre, transmission, backhaul and other services and to increase the FTTH rollout. 

(Samarajiva is Chair of LIRNEasia, a regional think tank based in Sri Lanka. Kyuvenhoven, now resident in Colombo, was Senior Interconnect Manager at Tele2/T-mobile in the Netherlands until June 2019.)