From smart lighting, to waste management, to air quality, IoT devices and other “smart city technologies” are rapidly changing life in urban areas. And with a recent MarketsandMarkets research report projecting spending in the market for smart city solutions will nearly double to over $873 billion by 2026, the trend is only set to accelerate.
With all the headlines and hype, it can be easy to overlook the role of IT in smart cities, and what it will actually take to run one. Hundreds of embedded systems and smart sensors spread across a metropolitan area creating, transmitting, and processing mountains of data that needs to be transformed into actionable information lead to several interesting network design, management, and monitoring challenges.
Let’s get into the IT side of this coming wave: just what are smart city networks, and what will it take to effectively monitor and manage them.
What is a smart city?
The term “smart city” is used to describe many things. For example, a city that leverages IoT devices and data analytics to manage assets and improve the quality of public services might be labeled a smart city. However, it’s also important to understand the idea of a smart city as a framework comprised of technology, people, and institutions.
With that in mind, I like to think about smart cities through the lens of a slightly modified version of The Thales Group definition of a smart city: A smart city framework emphasizes the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to improve operations and quality of life in urban areas.
That definition helps drive home the point that smart cities are about using technology to solve urban issues that have a real-world impact on the people living in those areas. While IoT devices and grids are a big part of the “how”, smart cities aren’t just about tech. They’re about using technology to address problems.
A good example of this is the Guelph/Wellington’s technology-enabled Circular Food Economy. Winner of the $10 million dollar Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, the project combines big data analytics, open APIs, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, human expertise, and partnerships to turn food waste into a resource, and importantly, increase access to nutritious food for citizens nearly 50% by 2025.
Understanding smart city networks
Connecting IoT devices at the scale of a smart city creates some unprecedented engineering challenges. Unlike campus or office networks, cabling is a non-starter in many cases. A wireless communication protocol is really the only option. The network also needs to consume as little power as practical while still transmitting data—relatively lightweight payloads (e.g. sensor data)—over relatively long distances.
Many popular existing Wi-Fi technologies aren’t a good fit for low-power, wide-area networks (LPWANs) applications. Either don’t have the required range (Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and BLE) while others are too power-hungry and expensive (4G LTE and 5G).
Say hello to LoRaWan
This is where LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) comes in. LoRaWAN addresses the “low power, low bandwidth, and long-distance” requirements of a LPWAN use case quite nicely.
Developed by the LoRa Alliance and formally recognized as an ITU international standard in November 2021, LoRaWAN is an open standard designed with LPWAN applications in mind. From a technical perspective, LoRaWAN is a point-to-multipoint wireless networking protocol that uses a proprietary LoRa (Long Range) spread spectrum radio modulation, and operates at the Media Access Control (MAC) layer (Layer 2 of the OSI model).
Because LoRa radio modulation operates is designed to transmit small payloads over long distances without consuming much power, it’s a good fit for simple IoT devices like temperature sensors and actuators.
The benefits of LoRaWAN for smart city networks
While there’s still no single LPWAN networking standard to rule them all (protocols like NB-IoT, Sigfox, and LTE-M are popular options), LoRaWAN has proven itself in a variety of large scale smart city networks. For example, SK Telecom and Samsung used LoRaWAN to build South Korea’s nationwide IoT network.
LoRaWAN is also protocol for an IoT network that piggybacks on wind turbines at the Dutch Port of Moerdijk. The network is monitoring air quality, including CO2 emissions, monitoring water levels, and open or closed bridges and gates around the port—which helps traffic move efficiently and reduces emissions.
Key benefits of LoRaWAN for smart city networks include:
- Low power consumption. LoRa signals don’t require much power, and as a result their low-capacity and low-voltage batteries can last for years. This means IoT devices using LoRaWAN may require less maintenance and have a lower overall total cost of ownership.
- Long range. LoRaWAN devices can communicate up to 16km with a clear line of sight to the gateway. And because the lower-frequency LoRa signals are good at transmitting through obstructions, LoRaWAN can transmit signals up to 5km in dense urban environments.
- Flexible networking. The LoRaWAN protocol makes it possible to create both public or private networks with IoT devices from different manufacturers, so long as they conform to the standard.
- Security first. The LoRaWAN protocol was written with security in mind. It uses AES 128-bit end-to-end encryption, has integrity and reply protection, and enables firmware updates over the air (FUTOA).
- No frequency spectrum licensing costs. While it can operate in the 2.4 GHz bands, LoRaWAN generally uses the unlicensed ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) bands.
- Significant adoption. LoRaWAN has widespread adoption and coverage across the globe. As of the beginning of 2022, there are over 160 LoRaWAN network operators in 177 different countries including The Things Network.
Like most things in IT, the specifics will vary depending on your implementation, but In many cases, traditional network monitoring protocols still play a role in smart city network management. For example, many LoRa gateways support SNMP. As a result, IT can use SNMP-based tooling to monitor their LPWAN infrastructure.
How to manage smart city networks
Unlike SimCity, modern smart city networks can best be approached like a type of IoT network. That means many of the principles behind effective IoT, and IoMT, network management apply to smart city networks as well.
Here are five tips to help you manage smart city networks effectively.
- Account for the IoT devices. Traditional network monitoring tools tend to do a good job identifying and monitoring endpoints and popular network devices. However, monitoring IoT devices and other embedded systems isn’t always as easy. IoT devices are cornerstones of smart city networks and your IT management system needs to be able to account for them. As a result, you should leverage monitoring tools that support the protocols and devices you use.
- Have a patch management plan. IoT devices are common targets for hackers. In addition to limiting attack surface by turning off unused and insecure network protocols, have a plan in place to patch vulnerable devices in the field.
- Make visibility a priority. Network visibility and documentation is a must in smart city networks where the status, location, and health of individual devices are highly variable. A granular, real-time network map data can streamline troubleshooting, and help IT understand the current state of the network at all times.
- Monitor traffic flows. One of the most effective ways to improve network visibility is by monitoring traffic flows. By monitoring traffic flows, IT can gain insights that can enhance network security and network performance. For example, Auvik TrafficInsights can identify which applications are consuming the most bandwidth on your network and tracking where egress traffic is headed can help IT identify malicious traffic fast.
- Use tooling that can provide real-time alerts. Smart city applications often deal with essential services such as traffic management, utilities, or public transport. Keeping downtime and mean time to repair (MTTR) low are critical parts of IT’s role. Tooling that couples detailed visibility and documentation with real-time alerting will help IT gain efficiencies in their efforts to maximize overall network uptime.
In the new realm of smart city networks, LPWAN and IoT devices create new monitoring and management challenges for IT. Many traditional on-premises RMM tools simply aren’t designed with those problems in mind.
However, modern cloud network monitoring platforms that provide granular real-time network visibility that support IoT devices can help IT keep up with the demands of smart city networks. Auvik supports over 15,000 devices from 700+ vendors and a variety of IoT visibility use cases.
If you’d like to try Auvik for free on your network, sign up for a free 14-day trial today.
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