Mark Montierth, vice president and general manager, NXP Semiconductors looks at how 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will support next-gen smart city infrastructure

Cellular and Wi-Fi networks are already working hand-in-hand to provide seamless, wireless connectivity across smart cities. Having real-time access to information and services –both indoors and out– is now the norm and is being used in various ways by utility companies, local governments and the emergency services, as well the average person for messaging, streaming content and sometimes even talking!

As these networks migrate onto next-generation infrastructure, with higher capacities and much faster speeds, new opportunities arise for these two technologies to combine and make environments smarter, more efficient and safer.

The need for speed

There is a race across the world for countries to upgrade their mobile and Wi-Fi infrastructure to feed the growing number of devices that are accessing the network. Live streaming and online gaming are by far the most data-hungry activities and, as those numbers of users continue to grow, slower performance will become an issue – a one that industry cannot afford. This is especially true for transport, healthcare and manufacturing applications that run at, or near to, real time.

Massive multiple-input, multiple-output (or massive MIMO), and millimeter wave (mmWave) are the key technologies for delivering fifth generation cellular, or 5G. Together they provide better throughput and spectrum efficiency to support higher speed and capacity on cellular networks. Although small test networks are already being set up in cities around the world, full deployment of 5G will still take a while as specific technologies are currently in development. Alongside 5G roll out, the sixth generation of Wi-Fi, known as 802.11ax or simply Wi-Fi 6, will bring higher throughput and overcome the inferior performance earlier versions had in crowded areas. With Wi-Fi 6 chipsets already available, OEMs are adopting the new technology enthusiastically. So much so, digital transformation expert ABI Research predicts that within the next four years 70% of all smartphones will be Wi-Fi 6 ready, along with over 90 million desktop and portable PCs.

Wireless capacity

In many instances, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will complement each other to provide significantly better performance in the wireless infrastructure. For outdoor applications, 5G will support many more users per cell, or much higher capacity than its predecessors. Similarly, for indoor use, Wi-Fi 6 will have higher bandwidth and capacity but at a dramatically lower cost – this solves the performance problems previously experienced by festival goers, football fans, convention delegates and other occasional mass gatherings.

Cost versus security

The decision as to which technology to use depends on cost and security requirements. As the SIM card identifies each user uniquely, cellular networks can prevent unauthorized access. Moreover, the access provider controls the features, bandwidth, networks and capabilities each subscriber is authorized to use. For 5G implementations, the network operator’s experience gained with inherent security and ability to tailor services from previous generation cellular networks, along with higher speeds and capacity will prove extremely useful.

Requiring no network operator and coming in at a significantly lower cost per node, Wi-Fi is more economical for the user. As Wi-Fi 6 is fully backward compatible with all previous generations, upgrade costs for users are lower and changeover can be more metered. The ease of using plug-and-play Wi-Fi routers with no subscription fees will certainly attract and abundance of new applications.

Above and beyond

As with current cellular and Wi-Fi collaborations, network operators will use Wi-Fi 6 access points to support 5G inside buildings. However, new applications will open up. Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, for example, will enhance wireless security systems by adding motion detection features. It will also deliver higher resolution video. In both cases, the 5G network will likely provide live streaming of high-definition video from the cloud.

In public venues, people will be able to switch between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 seamlessly, depending on their needs. Although this is already possible, the next-generation connectivity will enable more devices to access more data simultaneously. During this year’s Super Bowl LIV, for instance, the National Football League (NFL) reported that just over 70 percent of the 62,000 fans accessed the Wi-Fi to use more than 26 terabytes of data. That is almost 600 MB per device using legacy technology. The 2022 Super Bowl will be held at the newly-built SoFi Stadium in LA, where the NFL will be able to provide an even higher level of access. The stadium and entertainment complex has more than 2,500 Wi-Fi access points, providing four times more bandwidth and allowing up to 100,000 fans to connect to Wi-Fi simultaneously.

Next-generation cellular and Wi-Fi will deliver enhanced vehicular automation, enabling cars to communicate with each other on the road. Smart vehicles already integrate hundreds of sensors and manage multiple data streams. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will increase that capacity by up to ten times, supporting real-time interaction between vehicles.

Transport infrastructure equipped with 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will also become smarter. Real-time traffic monitoring systems will use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for advanced analytics. Depending on conditions, smart signage and signals will manage the flow of traffic to avoid jams and minimize delays.

The ability to respond to events happening in real-time and upping the capacity will also enhance pedestrianized zones and cycle routes. Streetlights can turn on as people approach and real-time alerts can warn of oncoming traffic. Enhanced geotargeting techniques to announce personalized messages about upcoming events and the latest nearby discounts will also be possible.

Out of sight

5G and Wi-Fi 6 within the city infrastructure will enhanced essential public amenities. Sudden changes in weather or a live public event will enable the power grid and water services company to manage their services more effectively.

With extensive 5G and Wi-Fi 6 coverage, the IoT becomes more powerful and offers up new possibilities. Smart waste containers powered by solar energy can alert refuse collection services, when they need emptying. This self-monitoring of capacity level in real-time increases responsiveness and efficiency of waste management services, while reducing the number of collection vehicles out on the road.

More automation through the use of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will also enable cities to become cleaner and quieter. When pollution reaches a certain level, for instance, remote controlled air filters mounted on street furniture can be switched on. Similarly, noise-cancelling or dampening technology can turn on automatically when sound emissions exceed a certain level.

Comprehensive reach

With full high-speed coverage and increased capacity, 5G and Wi-Fi will connect almost all of a city’s infrastructure wirelessly. The IoT devices will be able to monitor and report in real-time providing essential data for further AI-enable analysis to benefit the user experience and public health and safety. When next-generation wireless does roll out, we can already imagine many Smart City applications, but who knows what other opportunities might lie ahead?