The world is becoming an increasingly urban place. In the year 1950, only about 30 percent of the human population lived in a city. Howoever, as of 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in an urban area — and the great urban shift isn’t done yet. According to U.N. estimates, by the year 2050, a full two-thirds of human beings will live in an urban area.
Though 30 years may seem a long way off, according to AT&T VP of Product Development Cameron Coursey, the time to start building the smart cities — which will be critical to supporting and increasing urbanized humans populations — is right now, particularly when building out the 5G capability is also critical to ensure the future of smart cities.
“We expect that 5G will transform the way we work, play and enjoy entertainment, and will allow for new experiences like virtual reality [VR], telemedicine, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more,” Coursey told PYMNTS in an interview.
The 5G future is, of course, still a few years into the future — most experts predict it won’t be widely available for consumer use anywhere until 2020 the earliest. When it is ready, though, Coursey says life in the city will forever change, hopefully for the better. Connected by IoT, the vision is for cities with smoother transportation, a cleaner environment and more safety for everyone. And though it might sound a bit optimistic, bordering on utopian, AT&T isn’t thinking about building a science fiction, fantasy future, but practical and concrete changes that can be enabled when 5G is online.
Autonomous cars are a favored innovation for speculation about the 5G future. Coursey noted, though, that the successful utilization of those vehicles isn’t just about the technology built into them directly, but the environments they operate in.
“Smart cities infrastructure plays an important role in connected vehicles being able to communicate with the things around them. To truly realize these benefits, we are working to build a digital infrastructure to support them,” he said.
And the benefits, he noted, are extensive: Driverless vehicles that get real-time data and, according to Coursey, can go beyond the individual sensors on the vehicle itself.
“Vehicles will be able to ‘see’ around corners, through other vehicles and at longer distances. This will enable vehicles to quickly make sense of their environment and help guide safe operations on the road,” he noted.
Moreover, he added, vehicles will pick up the ability to learn from previous driving experiences — and store that data in a way that human drivers are not quite capable (not being computers and all). Plus, as the autonomous vehicles are entering the roadways en masse, they will be able to pool their collective experiential data. That data can then be analyzed and synthesized into improvements and algorithms that can be distributed across vehicles.
Coursey said, “5G will ensure faster and more efficient exchange of this data, enabling these automated vehicles to distribute and receive data, and function even better.”
To push these goals forward, Coursey said AT&T has partnered with the American Center for Mobility (ACM), an advanced automotive testing and product development facility outside of Detroit. ACM will be AT&T’s exclusive connectivity partner through 2020, and the goal of the partnership is to speed up the research and development of self-driving vehicles.
“We plan to build a unique, dedicated test network at ACM that will provide ACM customers the flexibility and tools to be able to test and validate cellular technologies, including 4G LTE and 5G [which] are critical to the development of automated driving,” Coursey noted.
And though automated driving will be a critical part of the 5G future (in smart cities and beyond), it is only segment of the utility that AT&T believes the enhanced data-sharing network will unlock. Cities, for example, are about to get a safety and security upgrade.
Connecting To Better Safety Solutions
Crime can happen at any time of day — and does. But crime happens at a much higher volume at night, and though there are a lot of explanatory factors that go into that, the main one is the most obvious. It’s dark outside — and, thus, easier not to be seen committing a crime.
Though there are a myriad of ways smarter connected cities can metaphorically make the lives of their citizens brighter, the IoT deployed at the municipal level can — literally — make their lives brighter by incorporating more and better customized lighting.
And crime prevention, through better lighting, is only one application
“Today, we can retrofit existing street lighting and use IoT solutions to help cities monitor traffic and road conditions. This helps cities identify and proactively manage repairs, road closures and maintenance needs to keep roads safer,” Coursey said.
Those sensors on streetlights can do more than just turn the light on, off or up. They can be data collection ports that can then feed back to firefighters looking for the fastest route to the blaze they’ve been summoned to put out. Decibel (sound) sensors on streetlights could help local police identify the location of gunfire when and where they happen.
Moreover, in 5G connected cities, public safety workers would have the ability to roll out technological form factors — like drones — that have never had much of a part to play in public safety, or a very limited one at best. In a more connected future, drones could be deployed to accident scenes in advance of emergency personnel so EMT’s have maximum data to make decisions when they arrive on scene — or by public works to inspect bridges and roadways to make sure they continue to function safely.
“Or, think of the potential for firefighters using a connected drone as they battle the blaze of a rapidly moving wildfire. As conditions quickly change, firefighters on the front line could still have access to the information they need in near real time from a camera-equipped drone.”
The Challenges On The Road Ahead
The main concern in building massive, digitally connected infrastructure that influences everything — how the light goes on and how the cars on the road drive — is, of course, protecting security in that environment. The system falling into the wrong hands could be catastrophic. The risk, Coursey noted, will only grow as more devices of all kinds multiply, but AT&T has something of an advantage when it comes to viewing the landscape.
“Analysis of data on a network that transports more than 200 petabytes each day gives us valuable intelligence about the ever-evolving cyberthreat landscape. We see a lot. Every day, we analyze approximately 686 billion flows that represent on the order of 19 petabytes of data. On average, we see more than 90 billion potential vulnerability probes across our global IP network every day and process 11 billion security events each day.”
However, security in the network itself, he noted, is only part of the battle. Security needs to be embedded into products and services from day one of design. Moreover, companies across the technology ecosystem need methods and tools to detect and correct vulnerabilities, block attacks and remediate compromised devices.
Beyond security, he noted, retailers, merchants and players in the payments ecosystem need to be ready to step up their game for the coming generation of ultra-connected 5G customers.
“Smart retailers are bringing together the best of the digital and physical worlds to create new experiences for customers. For example, imagine a future where you walk past a storefront with IoT cameras. They sense you, virtually clothe you in their latest fashions, and render you and your new wardrobe on high-definition screens in the store window.”
The limits, he noted, are consumers’ demands and the creativity of the merchants in tapping into a new technological playing field to reach them with improved experiences.
It all may sound like science fiction today, but AT&T is hoping to bring the future online sooner rather than later. By the end of the year, it hopes to start deployments in Atlanta, Dallas and Waco as the first cities to deploy mobile 5G services over mmWave spectrum. From there, AT&T has 5G labs operating in four major cities — Austin, Texas; Middletown, N.J.; Atlanta, GA; and San Ramon, CA.
“The trials and lab work we’re conducting are helping us guide our 5G 3GPP standards contributions. It also starts to set the stage for widespread commercial and mobile availability, once technology standards for 5G are established.”