Smart Cities and Small Cells: Innovation Can be Beautiful

Are we building cities that next generations will admire and want to preserve?

By Leticia Latino-vanSplunteren, CEO Neptuno USA

During the renaissance era, building cities was all about beauty. With the Internet Revolution, technology has become one of our main drivers, individually and as a society, leaving our cities vulnerable to beauty erosion. This can be avoided with proper planning and out-of-the-box thinking.  Technology moves fast, and undoubtedly we want to embrace the benefits it brings to us and our communities, evolving consciously, efficiently and in step with city leaders.

Given that more than two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, and the number of connected devices is estimated to reach 237 billion by the same year, it is essential to acknowledge that we are embarking on a Smart Cities journey.

The next generation of cellular technology (5G) promises to impact our lives with an unprecedented boost in speed and responsiveness. We are being disrupted almost without noticing it, from how we park to how we watch a movie and pay our bills. Smart devices are at the center of the revolution, but we can’t ignore the fact that infrastructure makes the magic happen.

Not surprisingly, this revolution sparks some pressing questions. How do we update existing infrastructure (mainly laying down fiber and adding a lot more antennas and equipment) without compromising the aesthetics and beauty of our cities? Are we, the citizens and the cities we live in, ready to embrace the changes that the digital revolution is bringing?

Wireless networks weren’t originally built to handle the amount of data that we are requiring from them today, hence, the imperative need to update the networks that allow us to satisfy this growing data appetite. When the cellular revolution first hit, people were hesitant to accept towers. Now towers are widespread and we see them, but we have learned to live with them because the alternative is no mobile service.

As consumers of data, we have become very demanding. We get frustrated when the movie we are streaming suddenly freezes, or if our pictures don’t load on social media applications right away. When we visualize Smart Cities, we talk about robotics, the internet of things (IoT), and autonomous vehicles, but we don’t openly talk about the process all stakeholders (cities, citizens, regulators, communications providers, etc.) must face to get there.

When you decide to run a marathon, the first thing you visualize is the excitement you will feel when you cross the finish line, but the truth is that unless you start with a clear training and nutrition plan to achieve that goal, you won’t cross the finish line. Unless you go through the painful and difficult part of training, the outcome you dream of won’t materialize.

Broadband and 5G deployments won’t be any different. Small cells (one of the 5G technologies most widely used by wireless carriers) call for massive densification, which means more antennas embedded in the middle of our cities. At the onset of these deployments, we should visualize what the city will look like when the deployments are completed. The Federal Communications Commission has opened the door to faster deployment of small cells, but it will likely butt up against local municipalities and residents who don’t necessarily want them. That’s a potential point of tension amid all the enthusiasm for the technology, but each stakeholder must make concessions so that deployments don’t get delayed.  Permitting is the main bottleneck for technology delivery, and the process needs to be streamlined and expedited.

We are starting to see how lamp posts, which often make an ideal location to attach equipment and provide a quick fix, are starting to house multiple boxes, raising concerns about the visual impact of overcrowding.

As citizens (and cities), we want the benefits of technology without the sacrifice. This needs to change. Our active and conscious participation is needed to bring the vision to fruition. We can’t build the cities of the future with the mindsets and regulations of today. Accepting the reality of urban expansion with smart planning will yield dividends.

With this in mind, cities should consider creating a  master plan that provides:

  • A technology urban renewal program with clear goals.
  • Shared neutral-host locations for wireless carriers and Smart-City-related infrastructure.
  • Equal/similar location opportunities for all communications providers. (Right now, citizens might not be bothered by one box on top of a lamp post, but what about when there are three or four?)
  • Footprint-maximization: multi-purpose structures that do more in less space. Single-purposed street furniture (interactive kiosks, security systems, smart waste baskets, solar-powered benches, sensors and Wi-Fi cabinets, etc.) will quickly start to mushroom with the potential of deepening street clutter.
  • Pleasant aesthetics and equipment concealment.
  • Point of presence to reduce the Digital Divide.
  • Citizen-engagement services aimed at improving the lives and well-being  of residents.

We are living in exciting times. Decisions that are made today will mark a historical evolution. Whenever possible, we should aim to build our cities’ legacies around the idea of ‘wrapping technology in art’ so that they can be preserved and admired for generations to come, just as we do when we visit the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum.

Leticia Latino-van Splunteren is the CEO of Neptuno USA, an offspring of Neptuno Group, a company with over 45 years of international hands-on experience in the telecom, broadcasting and utilities industries. Besides engineering, manufacturing and installation of towers and the build-to-suit of telecom sites, Neptuno has several patents, developed an enterprise-grade asset-tracking software and uses a revolutionary 3D Tower Mapping that enables the creation of a digital library of the network that is vital in emergency recovery situations. She was recently included in the 2018 Women of M2M list by Connected World Magazine, which is comprised of some of the most powerful women in the technology sector selected because they each brought a unique lens to their respective companies that helped push connected technologies forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WIA or its members.