By: Phil Beecher, President and CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance

From London to Miami, smart city projects are helping to redefine the world around us. As the pandemic slowly recedes, there’s fresh momentum to create safer, more affordable and environmentally friendly places to live. Urban centers saw significant depopulation over the past 18 months. It’s now the job of municipal planners to get those former residents back. But where to start? Increasingly, projects begin with smart street lighting, and then build out sensors and signage from this central backbone to help improve everything from traffic flow to public safety.

The key to unlocking all of this value is starting with the right type of network technology. It must serve a potentially large geographical area with reliable, robust and secure connectivity. And it must offer budget-conscious city-planners the peace-of-mind that they won’t be stuck with stranded assets.

Building the cities of tomorrow 

To build the cities of tomorrow, urban planners must tackle the challenges of today. These include public safety—a particular concern in the U.S. following the largest increase in homicides last year since records began. Also moving fast up the priority list are environmental concerns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), around 97 million Americans live in counties with pollution levels above 2020 air quality standards. And a recent American Lung Association report claims that more than 40% of Americans—over 135 million people—live in places with “unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.”

Traffic congestion is obviously a major contributor of urban pollution. But what happens on our streets and roads is also linked to the environment in other ways. Global warming is starting to have a real and visceral impact on our daily lives—from flash flooding to mega droughts, devastating hurricanes and catastrophic tornados. It’s why the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2021, ranks climate change as a “clear and present danger” for the next two years. Extreme weather can also create hazardous driving conditions and expose more vehicles to accidents.

Streets ahead

Technologically, there are various challenges to overcome if we are to build the smarter cities that these longer-term trends demand. First there’s cybersecurity. As local governments, businesses and citizens increasingly come to rely on hi-tech solutions to monitor and manage everything from utilities to emergency services (EMS), the risk is that threat actors seek to sabotage, disrupt and hold such systems to ransom. A key area of weakness is device authentication, with Internet of Things (IoT) endpoints often left protected only with a weak or factory default password. Devices can also be vulnerable to attack if the firmware isn’t regularly updated by vendors. It’s concerning that, according to a recent study, cybersecurity isn’t even on the priority list for some of the world’s most advanced smart cities. In reality, it should be built into everything we do.

A second major challenge lies around the reliability and scalability of communications infrastructure. To cover the potentially large geographical area that smart city projects demand, field area networks (FANs) offer the best option. A single, unified infrastructure will work best to simplify deployment, connectivity and ongoing management/maintenance. But signal reliability is a potential issue amidst urban canyons and narrow lanes. 

This is why smart street lighting projects are an increasingly popular foundation for city-wide initiatives. Given their height and ubiquity in urban areas, streetlights offer distinct advantages. There’s line-of-sight connectivity between each light and distances are such that it’s possible to run relatively high data rates between each pole without interference or packet loss. They can also be seen by nearby line and battery powered sensor devices and signage—creating a canopy network with excellent coverage and connectivity and the ability to extend capabilities in multiple smart city use cases.  

A smarter future

The smart LED lights themselves can be remotely managed to reduce maintenance costs and energy consumption, and provide aesthetically pleasing ways to illuminate particular buildings and places of interest. They can also be integrated with smart CCTV systems and programmed to turn up the brightness or flash intermittently in the event of a public safety disturbance. Audio sensors designed to detect and triangulate gunshots can also be linked up to smart lighting for coordinated response following an incident. Connectivity to weather and temperature sensors and digital signage can be used to turn up lighting if visibility is low, say during fog or heavy rain, and warn drivers in advance.

Other smart systems that could be extended outwards from street lighting networks include: digital signage for public transport; smart parking systems; and sensors for earthquakes, flash floods and high winds. Data from these can be fed back to centralized operations rooms or straight into automated workflows—for example flash flood warnings could be displayed on digital signage. There’s also smart waste management—sensors that tell operators when dumpsters are full, to reduce toxic odors and minimize operational costs. And monitoring of footfall and vehicle pollution could be used to inform urban regeneration planning.

The right network

It all begins with the right network. Wireless mesh topologies are self-healing and self-forming, making them flexible enough to deliver highly reliable connectivity, even in the most challenging environments. Devices on the network can automatically reroute around temporary outages or areas of poor connectivity. The P2P nature of the network also means everything can run locally if required—empowering edge computing systems of “distributed intelligence” which can offer cost and performance benefits over centralised cloud ecosystems.

Also important is to look for a communications infrastructure built on open standards. Urban planners want to build for the long-term without fear of vendor lock-in. Open standards mean interoperability and plenty of alternative providers to choose from. They also mean individual components have been stress-tested to the highest standards and built with security in mind—such as IEEE-approved encryption and device authentication.

Better still, open standards mean smart city planners will have access to competitively priced, high-quality equipment not just now, but far into the future. For those impatient to get started today, the road to success lies with a trusted industry partner which ticks all the boxes.


Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance and a recognized global expert on wireless IoT. He can be reached at