veli-pekkaVeli-Pekka Luoma, IoT specialist at Comptel, argues why telcos need to realise their potential as catalysts for the Smart City revolution…

Two approaching global trends – one technological, one societal – could mean the world to telco operators over the next several years.

The first is fairly clear to operators who keep a close eye on emerging digital service opportunities. It involves the Internet of Things (IoT). An expected 50 billion connected devices by 2020 means, potentially, billions of more devices to which operators can provide connectivity, services and data management.

The second is perhaps barely perceptible if you’re not paying close attention. It involves urbanisation. All around us, the cities in which many of us live are growing. Fifty-four percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and within the next 25 to 35 years, 80 percent of the population is expected to reside in just 600 megacities.

These two trends are converging in the world of communications to create the next big frontier for digital transformation: Smart Living in smart cities. As analyst Steve Bell described in an interview at Comptel’s Nexterday North, smart living proposes a new way of living built around the idea of intelligent IoT-enabled urban communities. An internet-enabled suite of services, supported by real-time data analytics, could improve life for citizens in the areas of health, transportation, energy efficiency and more.

Screen-Shot-2015-11-27-at-13.29.48Operators recognise the opportunity. Alongside healthcare and the connected home, the smart city was listed in a recent Heavy Reading survey as one of the top three use cases driving operator IoT revenue in the next three years. But, exactly what role will operators play in the development of smart cities?

Understanding Smart Cities as separate IoT applications

Smart living is more than just a connectivity play. Real-time data analysis and management is at the heart of the operator opportunity in the IoT, but especially in smart cities.

There’s a web of disconnected IoT applications proliferating across connected cities. In one corner, you might have a public transportation office that delivers real-time service alerts for local bus and subway trains. In another, you might have a neighbourhood experimenting with smart street lights that are optimised for energy usage and public safety.

Operators have the chance to be the glue that stitches data from separate IoT applications together

Take a few steps back and you’ll quickly see the wide swath of vertical markets already engaging with IoT applications across global cities: health, energy, education, public safety and governance. Imagine if each of those applications were connected, and cities had an opportunity to aggregate and analyse all of that information. What kinds of insights could be drawn, to the benefit of the entire city?

After all, IoT-enabled devices are just like every other source of data, such telco networks or mobile apps, which operators already tap for customer insights. Operators have the chance to be the glue that stitches data from separate IoT applications together, and the smart city is one such use case. Ultimately, operators can serve as managers of the platforms cities use to aggregate and analyse disparate IoT data in real-time, to the benefit of everyday citizens.

Unifying Smart City data through horizontal platforms

The “horizontal platform” that enables smart living management is not unfamiliar to operators – it’s similar to the service platforms they use to look at data across different sources today. Applied at the scale of a smart city, these urban operating systems rely on real-time data analytics to reveal the patterns of life within a city. Authorities could then look across real-time contextual data from vertical IoT applications to optimise and improve city life.

Smart Kalasatama, a district within Helsinki, Finland, offers an intriguing glimpse of this concept in action. Home to around 2,600 people, the borough is an innovation, experimentation and testing ground for smart living development through public and private partnerships. In one interesting example, sensors monitor humidity conditions within refrigerators to optimise food storage, which influences consumer spending, eating habits, waste collection and public health.

Kalasatama 2013 - UlkonäkymäData touches every corner of this district, informing how organisers manage its infrastructure, public services and even shared resources. Kalasatama organisers are working with the operator Elisa to build up its management of shared public spaces, creating an AirBnB-like system where residents and companies can book available spaces for working, meetings, pop-up stores and more.

The overall mission is simple: Kalasatama strives to save residents one hour out of every day through the efficiencies offered through the IoT. It’s not just about time efficiencies. Like other smart city projects, conservationism is embedded deeply within the DNA of Kalasatama. Its organisers strive to leverage the IoT to smartly manage scarce natural resources and offer sustainable alternatives.

However, execution can be complex. It takes a deep understanding of real-time data analytics to support large IoT implementations. Operators offer exactly that.

A small step, and a giant leap

Smart living may sound like a lofty concept, but the opportunity is actually comfortably within the reach of many operators, said Bell. That’s because smart cities are a local, not necessarily global, proposition. These projects require close cooperation with municipal authorities and local businesses, plus an understanding of local laws and cultural nuances. That’s a job for operators who understand their local market inside and out.

Operators have the tools and skills to be on the forefront of a major technology revolution

That’s not to say participation will be easy. In fact, it may very well require business re-organisation, of the same order in which operators spun off entire new mobile divisions to support the development of mobile phone solutions decades ago, Bell said. However, it will be worth it, as operators have the tools and skills to be on the forefront of a major technology revolution.

As our cities grow larger, they’ll need to become smarter. Operators can deliver the real-time data analytics that embeds automation and intelligence within city services. On top of that, telcos can be the catalyst that spurs knowledge sharing, benchmarking and the development of best practices across IoT initiatives. As we move toward the era of smart living, operators have the chance to initiate change.