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Dublin City Council is exploring the feasibility of a new telecoms unit within the council, says the lead of its Smart City unit, Jamie Cudden.
People are even more dependent on the internet and phones now with the impact of Covid-19, so senior management see it as a pressing issue, says Cudden.
“I think telecoms were taken for granted until Covid hit,” he says.
Last November, the city council put out a “PIN notice” – a way to consult with the market before putting out a full tender – to find out what telecoms infrastructure companies think Dublin will need in the future.
“We met with a lot of key players to understand what direction they’re going in over the next couple of years,” he says.
The council also wanted to hear how it can best continue to roll out 5G, how to minimise the messiness of digging up roads to put in the cables and ducting, and how to prevent visual clutter on the streets.
It also wanted to know how it can best work with telecoms operators to let them fix their tech to city infrastructure, such as bins, lamp posts and street signs.
The new telecoms unit, says Cudden, would be a kind of “one-stop shop” to make sure this new telecoms infrastructure is put in in a cohesive way.
“How does a city build a dense telecoms infrastructure in a way that’s joined-up, shareable, aesthetically looking okay and technically works and makes sense in terms of a business model,” says Cudden, on the unit’s main priorities.
Says People Before Profit Councillor Hazel de Nortúin: “It’s very progressive thinking which is what we want to see from the council. We want them to be looking more long-term.”
Last year, Smart Docklands and partners, including the CONNECT centre at Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City Council, published a discussion paper on 5G and future connectivity.
The paper says that the rate of long-term economic growth will be linked to how fast and whether the country adopts new smart and data-driven technologies.
“The world’s economy is at a pivotal point as we see a move towards an increasingly connected society driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and Big Data,” says the report.
“The impact of these emerging technologies will be underpinned by the robust connectivity that 5G offers,” it adds.
Says Cudden: “If you don’t invest in the next level of connectivity you’ll be left behind.”
In full, 5G means fifth-generation wireless technology. According to the report it “will bring faster speeds through lower latency”, meaning it would take less time for devices on the internet to send and process information.
It’ll also be able to sustain “a massive increase in connections between devices and the internet”, the report says.
For 5G to realise its full potential “many more radios and antenna will need to be deployed in higher densities”, says the report.
Marco Ruffini, associate professor in optical network architecture in Trinity College Dublin, said, “[I]f you want to increase capacity and reliability you need to go to small cells.”
Small cells are wireless transmitters that are needed every few hundred metres to ensure a dense wireless coverage.
“Here, there is a problem with scalability,” he says, “meaning it becomes very expensive to start putting many small cells around the city.”
As the city council owns so much street furniture – poles, bins, street lamps and so on – these can be a good place to install the small cells, says Ruffini.
“[B]y providing access to these, the city can really help [the] economic viability of small cells,” he says.
Otherwise, they can be too expensive for individual telecoms operators and they will only invest in areas where they will see a return, he says.
The council has a role in keeping a database of the assets it has that can be used for future telecoms and ensuring that access to these are not too costly for telecoms operators, says Cudden.
Enter the Council
Councils will play a strong role in making sure that new telecoms are rolled out in a more cohesive way than they have been so far, says the discussion paper on 5G and future connectivity.
“The current situation which deals with ad-hoc requests to access finite local authority assets is not scalable when considering the vast number of small cells required for pervasive 5G connectivity,” says the report.
Cudden points to cities in America where such ad-hoc requests have resulted in cluttered street poles with individual antennas and aerials for competing telecom operators.
A new telecoms unit would have responsibility for ensuring that doesn’t happen here, says Cudden. “It kind of struck us that we need to have one point of contact.”
Installing new telecommunications infrastructure can be messy, he says.
It can mean tearing up roads to lay underground fibre, or building large ugly masts, or antennas on buildings and lamp poles and bins, he says.
The council is exploring whether small cells – small radio networks that connect diverse internet-connected devices in an area to the larger network – are neutral hosts, meaning they can be used by different telecoms companies, says Cudden.
Sharing telecoms infrastructure could best reduce both road works and visual clutter, he says.
Having more proactive engagement with telecoms operators and ensuring that new telecoms infrastructure installed in the city is open to all to use are ways to do that, says Cudden.
Ruffini says this is called disaggregation. It “allows you to design a system with the features you actually need”.
“In a closed system you need to ask a vendor to do that for you,” he says, which they can then change in a few years to suit their own needs and not the city’s.
A non-proprietary system also facilitates more competition, says Ruffini, and allows more companies to get involved in building telecoms infrastructure.
Building infrastructure everyone can use means that you can better plan for what the city actually needs, says Cudden.
Says de Nortúin, the People Before Profit councillor: “It would make more sense to make it more uniform,” removing the need for an uncoordinated mass of poles, street signage and telecoms boxes.
Addressing black-spot connectivity issues in the city is also on the radar for the new telecoms unit, according to the city council’s PIN notice.
“The market isn’t going to invest heavily in areas that don’t generate a return for them,” says Cudden.
It’s up to the council to try and leverage its assets, such as street poles and access to buildings, with telecom operators to make it less expensive for them to expand their infrastructure to black-spot areas, he says.
“If we work with the sector in a collaborative way like we’re proposing and reduce the barriers and make it easier to invest and reuse assets I think there’ll be a much stronger return for the city,” says Cudden.
There would be agreements between the council and telecoms firms for long-term leases of the city’s infrastructure, which would be subject to conditions, says Cudden.
The cost to telecoms operators should cover the cost of maintaining any of the small cells and of the unit itself, says Cudden – under a cost-recovery model.
“It shouldn’t cost the city council and it shouldn’t be prohibitive for the telecoms operators to use the asset,” he says.