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LPWA Networks and 5G Emerging as Key Technologies for Unlocking Smart Cities

Ryan Citron
Sep 01, 2016


A number of different networking technologies are underpinning the emergence of smart city systems. Two emerging and overlapping developments in communications are likely to have a wide impact on smart cities: low-power networks and the move toward 5G networks.

Low-power wide-area (LPWA) networks are set to play an increasingly important role in expanding the possibilities for the Internet of Things (IoT) in cities. LPWA networks enable thousands of small battery-powered devices to operate for long periods of time (around 10 years on a standard battery); benefit from low-cost modems (less than $5); and offer cheap connectivity (a service cost of a few dollars per year), long-range access, and deep penetration.

LPWA networks offer the prospect of sensors and other intelligent devices being able to connect instantly into a communications network at a cost of a few dollars a year and with no additional investment needed. These networks are suitable for applications where high bandwidth and low latency are less important. Equally important, they allow for low-cost piloting and easy scaling of innovative applications. A supplier developing a smart city solution, for example, could quickly demonstrate the benefits of an application for air quality monitoring or smart parking.

Some Drawbacks 

Note, though, that LPWA networks are not suited to applications requiring high bandwidth such as video streaming or low-latency applications requiring a real-time response. Moreover, they are not suited for the continuous tracking of moving objects. LPWA networks are largely complementary to existing network technologies; however, they do present a challenge to radio frequency (RF) mesh technologies for some applications. These networks may offer a cheaper approach to applications such as smart street lighting and smart parking. Silver Spring Networks, for example, has offered its Milli 5 solution to directly address this challenge, providing a lower-cost, wide-coverage communications module for its mesh network.

Compared to 5G communications networks, the amount of data that can be transmitted through LPWA is also far lower. Generally expected to be commercially available around 2020, 5G networks will have a major impact on connectivity for a wide range of smart city applications. There are signs however, that 5G may be deployed sooner than 2020. In September 2015, Verizon announced it was working with a range of partners, including Qualcomm, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and Alcatel-Lucent, to make 5G available sooner.

While there are several different technology options for connecting cities of the future, LPWA and 5G appear to be the front-runners—for now, at least. For more information on smart city communications trends, see Navigant Research’s Smart Cities report.