Municipalities everywhere are declaring their intentions to become smart communities.

Most times, their planning starts with a single application or service in mind, such as autonomous vehicles, smart lighting, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors or connected transit. While one application may be the catalyst for modernising services, bridging the digital divide requires a broad range of applications that are only possible when built on a robust, future-ready infrastructure platform.

Having a flexible, future-ready network infrastructure platform that can support a wide variety of applications is important in part because the smart community vision is still evolving. Many solutions already exist, but many more haven’t even been imagined yet. Having a versatile underlying platform can provide municipalities with the capabilities they need to develop, deploy, and evolve smart community solutions over time.

Of the required capabilities, universal broadband is perhaps the most critical — essential for everything from video streaming to IoT deployments, remote work and education, and many other services. The need for broadband access is equal in both urban and rural environments. The amount of data used by farms, for instance, could increase more than tenfold over the next decade. Smart rural communities will need the infrastructure for farmers to monitor field conditions and manage crops remotely, use drones to deliver pesticides, run automated tractors to harvest fields, and more.

Picture your community like a computer

Anyone who wants to use a program like a word processor or social media app first needs a device to run it on — something with the right hardware and operating system. The same principle applies to smart communities: you need a foundational platform that can support any number of applications. Because you don’t want to be replacing your infrastructure too soon, that platform also needs to be future-ready, taking into consideration new and still-to-come technologies (such as 6G) that will power the next generation of digital services.

With a solid platform in place, the potential applications are virtually limitless. In Tainan City, Taiwan, residents use a digital ID card for everything from getting their blood pressure checked to rent bicycles. The data gathered by these cards can be analysed and cross-referenced against a range of public health and environmental data collected by IoT-connected devices, allowing the city to draw correlations on topics such as physical exercise frequency in areas with high pollution levels — and then drive public policy to improve quality of life for its citizens.

Tainan City is a good example of how smart community infrastructure paves the way to bridging the digital divide, equalising opportunities for citizens to access services while giving cities better information to enhance those services (and how they are delivered) through enriched data analytics. The pandemic exposed just how important bridging that divide really is. Those able to take their lives online were much better positioned to weather the lockdowns than those who could not.

How to build smart community infrastructure

Cities and rural communities are not usually the builders of telecommunications infrastructure. Historically, that has been the job of network operators. Going forward, it will be important for communities and operators to collaborate and work toward a shared, future-minded infrastructure vision: one that provides for maximum openness and flexibility for things to evolve. The ‘neutral host’ model, which gives municipalities greater control and ownership over how their network infrastructure is built and used, will be key.

The other key to building smart community infrastructure is to engage the community itself. In some places, its community groups, rather than network operators, who are driving deployments. Citizens in the Netherlands, for example, are stepping in to define their own requirements for connecting every person together. With the support of a national bank’s infrastructure fund, grassroots-directed, community-based networks are being built across the country — ensuring broadband connectivity (and its benefits) are accessible to as many people as possible.

That said, deploying infrastructure should not be thought of solely in terms of hardware and technology. It’s also about establishing appropriate procedures that will make it as easy as possible for municipalities to attract the partners and investments that will enable them to deploy whatever technology might be needed to improve peoples’ lives. Questions like, “Are small cells allowed to be hosted on municipal property?” must be considered and answered before genuine change can happen. That’s why our next blog will also take a closer look at policies and processes — and how municipalities can build stronger relationships with network operators and infrastructure providers that will help them become smart communities.

A digital infrastructure strategy can help municipalities address these and other factors in a forward-looking way. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a smart community, it’s important to ask the right questions upfront. For more information, check out our latest podcast about smart communities and bridging the digital divide.