Communities can use connectivity to unlock economic, social and commercial value in the post-pandemic world — by bridging the digital divide, attracting top talent, improving services and becoming more resilient.

Yet most of today’s broadband infrastructure isn’t ready to deliver those benefits. To enable the right kind of connectivity environment, governments need new strategies and new ways to engage with telecommunications service providers.

The surge in demand for digital health and education services during the pandemic proved that broadband connectivity isn’t just nice to have; it’s downright critical to our daily lives. Smart communities can attract greater investment, support the growth of knowledge-based industry sectors, and deliver improved public services to everyone.

Realizing the smart community vision requires an infrastructure that can support the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, enhanced broadband and other emerging digital technologies. Municipalities must take a hard look at what’s in place today to gain a holistic view of what their constituents really need. Cities and rural areas alike require advanced connectivity for everything from video conferencing and online learning to equipment automation and analytics-driven ‘smart’ farms.

Strategy matters

In the first wave of broadband rollouts, telecommunications carriers understandably optimized infrastructure to serve densely populated areas, but this resulted in coverage gaps in rural and sparsely populated communities that remain to this day.

Many carriers also used their first-mover advantage to lock down connectivity in new construction and rights-of-way, which effectively limited competition because new entrants either had to pay a premium to access the incumbent’s network or duplicate and overbuild the existing infrastructure.

At the same time, rural areas tended to draw smaller-scale wireless providers that didn’t have the resources or capabilities to give the communities and their constituents the full scale of broadband services that they required.

With this upcoming wave of new broadband deployment, all levels of government must take a more proactive and strategic approach to planning their connectivity infrastructure to ensure they get the economic and societal benefits that they require to secure their digital future.

Carriers understand the role of next-gen connectivity in municipal plans for smarter transit, sanitation, and safety fixtures (emergency call stations, security cameras, etc.)which require IoT applications running on 5G networks. Schools, hospitals, and local governments are often early adopters and anchor customers of network technologies, consuming massive volumes of high-speed data in densely populated areas. Cities with tech sectors and other knowledge-based industries require next-gen connectivity to attract both the investment and the skilled personnel to grow these industries.

And there are still all those coverage gaps to fill. In Ontario alone, nearly 700,000 homes in rural areas are currently underserved. At the same time, bandwidth demand is expected to increase by 25% per end-user per year.

Quick action will give a competitive advantage

The key is to act now. Governments should be deciding today how local networks will be built, accessed, and monetized over the next three to five years. That will help them avoid losing investment opportunities to governments that are thinking strategically — and reduce their risk of only working with a single service provider again.

Carriers need access to rooftops and physical support structures to deploy cells for mobile communications. New smart community use cases will require access to passive assets such as hydro poles, streetlamps, traffic lights and even manhole covers, which can be made ‘smarter’ with the addition of fibre, sensors, antennas and closed-circuit cameras.

Accessing these ‘rights of way’ is usually a major expense for carriers. Municipalities can help bring those costs down (savings that will pass along to citizens) by ensuring fair and equitable access to conduits, pole attachments, towers and real estate. Getting this right can also speed up deployment timelines while ensuring competition is enabled in their communities.

There are power considerations to weigh as well. The move to 5G will see carriers shift from high-power/low-density ‘macro’ towers in favour of clusters of low power/high-density cells on rooftops and street poles, which will place new demands on municipal power grids.

Even aesthetics come into play: data flowing from sensors on a streetlamp may be the linchpin of a new revenue stream, but residents may question its value if protruding antennas make it an eyesore.

A digital infrastructure strategy can help municipal and regional governments address these and other factors in a forward-looking way. Identifying the tools, technologies, and processes they’ll need to build and manage next-generation networks will be critical to their success. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building a future-proof network it’s important to ask the right questions up front. There are four key areas to examine:

  1. Passive infrastructure management, including the impact of 5G infrastructure on rooftops and government-owned real estate.
  1. Use case development and integration to define the technical requirements for smart services.
  1. Digital infrastructure requirements to ensure universal and equitable coverage.
  1. Infrastructure funding to address the agendas of carriers and governments alike.

A strategy with these four cornerstones will provide the basis for inventorying current digital infrastructure, defining new permit strategies and putting municipalities on an equal footing with the carriers.

Collaboration is key

Building the right connectivity infrastructure isn’t something governments necessarily specialize in. Most will need an implementation partner with both technical expertise and a solid understanding of government financial and project planning cycles. Because these are capital-intensive ventures, access to long-term financing is also key.

At BAI Communications, we have firsthand experience in building and operating communications infrastructure, and through the investment capabilities of our majority shareholder, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), we are well-positioned to help municipalities bridge the digital divide.

The benefits of smart communities are available to municipalities that are ready to take a strategic approach to optimize their digital infrastructure strategy. The time to act is now.

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