Industry Thought Leadership

The Role of 5G in Enabling Smart Cities

December, 2019
Pradeep Bhardwaj
Senior Strategy Director and Head of Industry Standards


It seems that 5G rollout gets bigger and faster each day. This once-in-a-decade upgrade will leap ahead of current wireless technology, 4G, by enabling mobile internet speeds that will pave the way for a new generation of highly reliable, real-time, automated services like the internet of things and smart cities.

But there continue to be a number of questions and unknowns about how 5G will actually work. As a 5G specialist who’s been right in the thick of the development of this new technology standard, I get asked a lot of the same questions about the new services that 5G will bring, and how everyone from mobile operators, to nontechnology companies, to consumers will begin to make use of 5G. In this article, I’d like to share a few of these answers as they specifically relate to smart cities.

How do you see 5G changing the way that smart cities evolve?
Smart cities have already started to become a reality to some extent, because when we say “smart,” we mean data-driven, interconnected and intelligent. It implies collection of data from installed sensors, analysis of a vast amount of data, simulation of data in virtual environments, and then application of the results into real-world assets to optimize performance of these assets. The more data we have to analyze, the more accurate our insight is, and the better our ability is to make our cities run more efficiently. Although we’ve started to make our cities smart by implementing, for example, automated traffic systems to improve traffic flow, or cameras and analytics to increase efficiency, it’s the arrival of 5G that will allow us to take these to the next level. 5G will become the unifying technology fabric that enables connectivity for these sensor devices.

Smart cities will typically have a large number of installed sensors and devices with a high density. And 5G will deliver the mass connectivity to enable the deployment of millions of these devices, such as sensors required for a smart city to collate crucial data from different utility systems as well as support the connection density and capacity density required. Moreover, the IoT sensor devices in a smart city environment will have many diverse requirements in terms of throughput, latency, reliability and mobility. 5G will provide faster, more reliable, and lower-latency networking connectivity required for many advanced use cases for IoT, especially in the URLLC and massive IoT categories. Ultimately, this next-generation technology standard will serve as the basis for effective deployment of small-cell networks that can power an extensively interconnected wireless infrastructure needed for a smart city.

How will 5G change a city’s cybersecurity positioning?
Implementing high-speed, low-latency 5G networks will add a new layer of connectivity, but also a new layer of complexity, because it will increase the numbers of devices that will need to be connected and communicate with each other. When critical assets and infrastructure services deployed in smart cities rely on 5G networks, they must be safeguarded under all situations at all costs – the stakes couldn’t be higher. While 5G technology is secured by design and has several enhanced mechanisms and capabilities for security, these must be carefully managed, especially in a hybrid environment. With the adoption of 5G technology by a multitude of industries, the attack surface increases multifold, despite that fact that 5G is much more secure, and the risks are much higher as a result.

Whether it’s a smart city that uses connected cameras and intelligent sensors to improve traffic flows, or smart homes that proactively alert owners of impending problems, every new connected device adds to the number of entries in a network that can easily turn into a cybersecurity threat if not managed properly. These threats have different origins, from more advanced attacks from educated cybercriminals, to more simple cases of human error. Generally, today’s rising cyberattack incidents are strongly connected to the public internet’s open access. A vast amount of highly sensitive data is channeled through weak networks and clouds that were not designed to protect data from such sophisticated threats. That’s why there is a growing need for private networks that are isolated from the public internet and can identify and manage elements and assets in their environments in a secure way.

What are some challenges of large-scale 5G implementation for smart cities?
The 5G opportunity brings serious challenges that mobile operators need to prepare for now, such as ensuring interoperability across earlier generations of networks as well as across multiple networks of roaming partners. Ultimately, disparate network technologies will have to be able to work together to power continuous connectivity between the IoT and other connected devices. There’s also the regulation side. This includes things like how 5G will affect roaming across borders, especially in Europe, which will need to be discussed and clearly defined in the service-level agreements between providers and customers. This must also be applied to the liability regarding any problem that might arise with the implementation of this new technology in a 4G world. One of the significant challenges for the IoT industry is the heterogeneity and fragmentation of connectivity landscape, and this has hampered the IoT vision significantly. There is a strong expectation that 5G will mitigate this.