How disparity in mobile data coverage is hindering smart city initiatives

By Natalie Duffield, CEO of intechnologywifi

A recent study has revealed that the UK’s largest cities have significant discrepancies when it comes to mobile connectivity, with London faring particularly poorly in comparison to other highly populated cities. Scoring the UK’s 16 most populous urban areas, the research – by mobile network analytics firm RootMetrics – found that Liverpool has the UK’s best mobile network performance, reliability and speed.

Beyond highlighting the issue of poor mobile reception, the research suggests councils and city planners could struggle to enable their future smart city initiatives, due to the lack of effective connectivity, even in some of the UK’s primary commercial centres.

There are, however, a number of alternative, more reliable connectivity solutions decision-makers should to keep their smart city initiatives on track.

Cellular networks getting crowded

The implementation of smart initiatives as part of the Internet of Things is by no means a topic for future gazers. A recent report from Cisco predicts there will be over 50 billion connected devices, or ‘things’ worldwide by 2020, and numbers are growing every day.

With consumer applications – from wearable technology to connected cars – going online and eating up data, we are in no doubt this movement will drive up bandwidth usage on already fragile cellular (i.e. 3G and 4G) data networks. Increased data usage in densely populated areas puts a burden on these networks, meaning acceptable coverage and capacity can be rare, or even non-existent.

WiFi networks offer a robust and reliable alternative – a tried and tested connectivity solution, familiar to all manner of devices and users, without the potentially expensive data rates – to keep users connected, even during periods of high activity.

Future-proofing devices

As the age of the connected devices people are using can vary significantly, it is critical that the connectivity infrastructure can accommodate both the cutting edge and vintage. Connectivity issues can arise, however, when mobile networks limit capacity to devices, depending on how advanced the handset is. For example, an older smartphone may be restricted to 3G, even if there is a strong and faster 4G network available in the area.

WiFi alleviates this issue. An unrestricted WiFi network can provide access to a fast and reliable connection, however old or new the technology within the smartphone handset is. In this sense, implementing an open WiFi network effectively ‘future-proofs’ connectivity, which is of critical importance in an era of tighter budgets – such as those managed by town or city councils, for example, who may be looking to provide greater connectivity for their municipalities.

Digital inclusion: Don’t forget the individual

When we think of smart cities, we often think of tomorrow’s flagship technologies, such as driverless cars and intelligent traffic or parking solutions. While these sort of services are becoming increasingly more crucial as more people move towards urban areas, the access of individuals to high-speed internet must still remain a focus.

The promise of super-fast broadband, for example, offers councils the opportunity to provide their services more effectively and boost digital inclusion, but providing such a service is often a distant aspiration, due to the significant investment required, for example, to install E1 lines.

This is why many towns are looking towards open WiFi networks to connect their services and their citizens. These point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless technologies can interconnect council offices, fire stations, police stations, businesses and communities throughout the area at significantly less expense.

One town taking this step is Watford, Hertfordshire, where the Borough Council recently announced that it will roll-out a free, public WiFi network. The network will provide its citizens with a real taste of the advantages smart cities can bring, paving the way for more innovative services and harnessing data to better manage the town’s urban ecosystem (e.g. local traffic, public transport, utilities and education).

Many other areas across the UK are desperately calling for the same level of ‘always-on’ connectivity – we simply cannot afford to place all of our trust in cellular networks.

With more people online and more data being consumed, more robust connectivity solutions must be in place. The RootMetrics research has demonstrated the very disparate quality of coverage between towns and cities in the UK, so local leaders must now consider new ways to ensure strong and reliable connectivity is in place for them to pursue the potential of smart initiatives. Just being ‘online’ is no longer enough.

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