‘Mobile World Live’ Senior Editor Chris Donkin went on-air with Justin Berger to understand his view of smart cities and BAI’s involvement in their development. Read the transcript below.

Chris Donkin: Hello and welcome to this ‘Mobile World Live’ themed week interview with BAI Communications’ Chief Strategy Officer Justin Berger discussing smart cities. Thank you very much for joining us.

Can you give us an overview of how you see the smart cities space and how you’re involved in it?

Justin Berger: Hi Chris, thanks for having me. So, I would say that BAI is quite active in the smart transit and public safety space, which is a subset of smart cities. We also have broader ambitions in the smart city ecosystem as well.

What we do at BAI is design, build, and operate communications networks across the world. Some of our networks, especially in New York, Toronto, and Hong Kong have been deployed in subway environments in transit systems. What we do on top of just providing the connectivity – the cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity – in those environments is partner with the transit authorities themselves, local authorities, and a number of players of the ecosystem to deploy additional solutions for transit operators.

To give you a few examples of things we’ve done in the past, we helped the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] implement a data analytics solution we designed that they use to monitor the number of passengers in their stations and on their platforms using completely anonymised data from our networks. That is something that is very useful in normal times for transit authorities to know where their passengers are, for looking at patterns, scheduling trains etc. It’s even more interesting in a covid-19 time or post-covid time to understand things around crowding or overcrowding on platforms – all of which links with social distancing, of course. We have also helped the TTC with smart payments solutions; so, upgrading the turnstiles and the station entrances with new digitally connected systems that help with the flow of passengers.

Some of the other things we have done,  for example in New York, is to work with the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] on setting up help points in the stations where passengers can safely connect to the network and request assistance. Also, deploying sensors on trains for them [transport authorities] to be able to track where the trains are and provide information such as the countdown clocks in stations for passengers to know when the next trains will arrive.

We’ve also done things in Hong Kong with the MTR [Mass Transit Railway] around driverless trains and CCTV. As part of that, we are currently working on broader smart city initiatives in some of the big cities where we are present – in New York, Toronto, and London and also some smaller cities in Canada.

Chris: What would you say are some of the main challenges you’re hearing about the cities you’re working with? Is it a case of they’ve got the old infrastructure in place, is it mindset, or is it about money? What do you think the barriers are?

Justin: That’s a very interesting question and not an easy one to answer, but I think you’ve raised two very true elements there. Cities started to build smart infrastructure a long time ago, decades ago, even before the term of smart cities was coined and used. But I think you’re right, there is an element of having built different systems in isolation – for watering systems or lighting or traffic, and this is holding back a lot of the evolution of those systems that have been built individually and are not necessarily talking to each other, but each using their own connectivity infrastructure in the background. All of that makes it a very complicated task.

There have been isolated initiatives as well, not necessarily driven by the master plan from the city. Some cities have been a little more ahead, using the common example of Barcelona and its master plan around smart cities. However, a lot of cities, going back to what I was saying before, not just big cities but a number of tier two and tier three cities are now looking at putting those master plans in place.

Funding: you mentioned that as well, absolutely that’s a critical question. If we want to get to the next step and connect all the systems and build additional smart city initiatives, it is often difficult to have one single use case that will justify investment into connectivity, putting down the infrastructure and building all that. So, I think the key for me is really around what I mentioned around the city taking this initiative and putting it under an umbrella and driving all the aspects of the smart cities together. And it’s also around the business case that will happen with a shared digital infrastructure.

For a business case around smart cities to make sense, we truly believe that having a shared infrastructure built for a number of use cases, whether that’s fibre optic or wireless network in a city, is going to have to serve a number of initiatives and all of this has to be coordinated. There are some challenges, but I would say there is a lot of hope and movement, especially with the cities at the moment, to overcome those challenges.

Chris: How do you expect 5G to impact things?

Justin: 5G will have a massive impact on the smart city topic and there are mainly two big impacts that I see. The first one is the technology itself. We’ve been promised a lot about 5G for a few years now. We’ve started to see the rollout in 2020, we will see a lot more of that in 2021, and the technology itself will bring higher frequency and lower latency, enabling more devices to be connected to the network. All of these key characteristics of 5G will be, depending on the application, very useful whether you want something like cameras, which will require low latency and whether you want thousands of smart sensors. The 5G technology will simply enable some innovations that weren’t possible in the past, so that’s what I think is the first thing. It will take a bit of time to materialise but ultimately drives smart cities.

The second element in my mind is around the network. 5G in the background already requires all the telcos to build new networks, to upgrade the network, to add more antennas, coupling up small cells to create capacity in city centres. There are also some very profound moves in the network architecture to some more decentralised RAM and things like that, so all in all it’s quite a big shake up. 5G will change a lot of things in the network, which we see as a great opportunity for having this new [shared] network being rolled out to integrate into this smart city agenda and into the need for a shared infrastructure that I was mentioning just before.

There is a great opportunity for cities to think about how they use their streetscape, their street furniture, their assets, and get neural hosts like BAI to come and play a much bigger role in the rollout of those networks, while being able to support the mobile operators in their rollout providing 5G to their customers. Using this opportunity to create a backbone of wired and wireless infrastructure in a neutral host format will enable all of the initiatives and the use cases that they [cities] have in mind, and make them financially viable as we were discussing before.

Watch the recording of the live interview here.