The 5G promise: Smart cities, smart businesses, smarter medicine 

click to enlarge Working from home more lately? That may become more ubiquitous due to 5G. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Working from home more lately? That may become more ubiquitous due to 5G.

Ryan Trujillo envisions a Colorado Springs that provides faster and better city services, economic resilience and a better quality of life through smart technology.

He sees a city where interactive kiosks in the downtown core point visitors toward restaurants, shows and amenities; where sensor-capable LED streetlights report to the city when they need servicing; and where even the trash bins will be able to notify city personnel that they are full.

Trujillo heads the city’s office of innovation and sustainability, where he is overseeing the development of SmartCOS.

While some of the pilot projects Trujillo is working on will be realized using 4G LTE technology, SmartCOS will fully flourish only when the smart devices can be powered with the fifth generation of wireless technology.

The capabilities 5G will provide “are absolutely foundational to how we want to become a smart community,” Trujillo says. “We need that foundational connectivity piece before we can advance the deployment of the Internet of Things” — the embedded devices that will enable everyday objects like streetlights and trash bins to send and receive data.

While 5G service is already here — T-Mobile launched 5G service in Colorado Springs December 2019, while AT&T rolled out 5G service in April of this year — both companies’ services are available in limited areas on only a few 5G-enabled smartphone devices.

But when 5G is more widely available, it will speed uploading and downloading of data and allow for more data to be transferred, collected and analyzed. It will broaden available bandwidth and permit better video with lower latency.

That speed and power will help bring smart cities online and will improve the delivery of many services in demand right now, including remote work and telemedicine.

“We’re negotiating master license agreements with telecommunication providers to make the 4G networks more robust and set the foundation for 5G deployment in our community,” Trujillo says. “We work with a number of broadband providers as well on future expansions of their broadband networks.

“5G is one piece of the puzzle to become more of a digital city that relies on connectivity more effectively,” he says. “Broadband expansions, wireless networks, IoT deployments, economic development drivers — by utilizing technology, all of those things make up the overall smart city ecosystem.”

Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities launched SmartCOS in early 2018 with input from more than 100 community members.

The SmartCOS team identified smart-city concepts to develop and deploy as opportunities arise and funding permits, including smart parking, a connected vehicle platform, advanced utility metering, information kiosks, smart security and smart streetlights.

One of the focus areas of SmartCOS is Southwest Colorado Springs, which is undergoing extensive redevelopment.

“We’ve done some planning around a smart district,” Trujillo says. “Any time that you’re investing in infrastructure, it’s more cost effective to do that when it’s being redeveloped rather than trying to retrofit.”

The city has already launched a smart streetlight pilot project to test a network of controllers that allow staff to dim or brighten LED lights and monitor power use.

“So instead of a citizen reporting that a streetlight is out, we would have a more proactive way to know when a streetlight burns out and be more proactive in replacing those streetlights,” Trujillo says.

Another pilot project in development is installation of solar-powered sensors in trash bins that will tell staff when they need to be emptied.

“So instead of deploying resources to service trash cans on a regular basis, whether they’re full or not, we will be able to deploy resources specifically for the trash cans that need to be serviced,” Trujillo says.

Smart kiosks could help drive economic development, he says.

“It’s a very interactive way for visitors and tourists to get a better understanding of what there is to do in our community.”

Fort Carson is conducting a pilot project to deploy autonomous smart vehicles on base, using a $4 million grant from the Department of Defense, Trujillo says.

“The second phase of that project is to integrate autonomous vehicles into the city,” he says. “It’s in the very early stages right now, but we’re going to be able to benefit from our community being one of the first to test an autonomous vehicle project.”

The costs of these projects and the strain on the city’s budget from COVID-related closures have been factors in choosing projects, but Trujillo says his office is looking for cost-neutral or cost-saving opportunities, and obtaining grant funding.

“The purpose of building out these pilot projects is to develop a business case, and we could then look to scale those projects in other areas of our community,” he says. “We want to make sure that what we deploy adds value and improves services.”

A major purpose of building a smart community is to drive economic development.

“If you are a resident or a business looking to come to Colorado Springs,” he says, “having high-speed wireless internet capabilities, having a city that promotes innovation and sustainability — those are the things that people are looking for.”

So Trujillo is working with the development community involved in Southwest Colorado Springs and other redevelopment areas to leverage investment to improve connectivity.

“In order to become a smart community, you really need all stakeholders engaged — higher education, nonprofits, the private sector, government entities and the like,” he says.

Trujillo sits on the board of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, a statewide network of 26 jurisdictions interested in adopting smart cities initiatives.

The alliance facilitates collaboration and information sharing among its members.

“What’s really game-changing about 5G is that the speed, the latency and the reliability of that future network will be so much beyond the 4G network that it will enable completely new ways to use the internet,” Executive Director Tyler Svitak says.

Among the developments 5G will make possible is enhancement of public safety, including the use of police body cams that now are mandated in Colorado by 2023. 

“The way that they generally work is they aren’t uploading all the time,” Svitak says. “They have to store and record all of that data until they get back to the precinct or a Wi-Fi hotspot. Then that data is uploaded very slowly over time.”

5G will enable real-time, live streaming and quicker responses to public safety emergencies at a lower cost, he says.

In a 5G environment, traffic signal cameras could trigger notifications of an accident and generate an alert to the closest first responder in a connected vehicle.

The new technology would allow autonomous shuttles to be deployed at locations such as Garden of the Gods Park, Svitak says. The use of smart vehicles could cut congestion in the park and lower the cost of traditional transit service.

Smart sensors also could monitor air quality, inform the city about leaks in the water infrastructure and predict flash floods.

“The biggest limitations right now for these smart cities programs is that all of those sensors can’t be connected to the same network because there’s not enough bandwidth and it costs too much,” Svitak says. “In theory, millions of sensors could connect to a 5G network at a relatively affordable cost.”

A 5G network could enable businesses to save money on connectivity and data storage.

“An on-premise 5G network would allow businesses to conduct augmented reality meetings with staff that aren’t physically located in the office, but it feels as if they were,” Svitak says. “It would be integrated into your cell phone plan, and every one of your employees could have access to that 5G network instead of having to have their own Wi-Fi.”

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t likely to speed up adoption of 5G, since telecom companies have to go through a government permitting process and then install the infrastructure to enable it, says Bob Cook, instructor of cybersecurity, business analytics and information systems in the College of Business at UCCS.

“What I think COVID has done is to further put a stamp on the need for 5G,” he says. “The major carriers are in a race to get 5G out first. But it’s still going to take a fair amount of time.”

That’s because each tower or small cell site can transmit about a third as far as the standard 4G LTE technology, he says.

“They have to roll out tens of thousands of towers across the U.S. in order to get the same coverage for 5G that they currently enjoy with 4G,” Cook says. At a cost of about $15,000 per tower, “you’re looking at about $7.5 billion of expenditures to get 5G to 55 percent of the U.S. population.”

The telecom companies are focusing on major metropolitan areas first, because outside of those areas, “the cost benefit is not there for the carriers,” he says.

“So I don’t think 5G will be here fast enough to help us with the COVID-19 crisis,” Cook says. “But over the next couple of years, you’re going to see it really have an impact on our day-to-day work life and even personal lives.”

What could push the carriers to implement 5G faster is competition from a new entrant in the telecom field.

“SpaceX has launched up to 600 Starlink satellites,” Cook says. “They have permission from the FCC to launch up to 13,000 satellites over the next three years.”

The intent of Starlink is to provide a low-latency, broadband internet to every corner of the planet with network speeds that rival or exceed 5G speeds.

“SpaceX is hoping to have something like a third of the country covered by the summer of 2021,” Cook says. “And Elon Musk’s intention is to make it very price-competitive — in the neighborhood of $20 to $30 a month.”

Cook thinks that the idea of remote work, spurred by the pandemic, will become much more of the norm when 5G is widely available.

Companies could see cost savings by letting employees work remotely. With fewer employees on-site, a company might be able to move to a smaller office building and pay less for utilities
and parking.

Employees working from home might replace the time they spent commuting with a bike ride or hike. That could mean healthier employees and lower health care costs for employers and employees. 

Many employees are happier working from home and might be more likely to stay with their company, reducing turnover costs, Cook says.

Businesses will have to make some investment in 5G, however. Because the underlying millimeter wave technology doesn’t pass through walls very easily, “businesses that have huge campuses, or high rises, might have to invest in some repeat antennas to get good coverage,” he says.

Businesses like FedEx and UPS will have to invest in receivers for their vehicles, and everyone will have to have a 5G-enabled phone.

“But for most businesses, I don’t think they’re going to have a huge expense other than what they’re already incurring,” he says.

Cook also thinks telemedicine is here to stay, and that 5G will enable remote monitoring of patients far beyond what is available today.

“Apple’s been talking about sensors that can measure not just heart rate, breathing and oxygen levels, but whether you have enough iron in your blood,” he says. 

A doctor could prescribe a wearable device that will send real-time updates to the medical office on measurements and symptoms and alert the medical provider if the patient needs to be contacted.

A parent could get an alert when a wearable device signals that a diabetic child’s glucose level has dropped and enable the parent to check on the child via a video chat.

“If doctors embrace that and the medical technology catches up, I think you could see a significant improvement in people’s lives,” Cook says.

In the future, 5G will also power medical robots, enable remote surgery and could even power a scanning device like the Star Trek tricorder.

“DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, does what’s called a grand challenge every year, where they challenge the civilian community to invent some new super-advanced technology,” Cook says. 

“One of their current open challenges is for companies to invent the equivalent of a tricorder, where the doctor can scan you and know everything that’s wrong with you,” he says. “There are about 25 companies working incredibly hard to do exactly that.” 


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