Lighting grid infrastructure is ubiquitous throughout most major cities, so it is no surprise that streetlamps offer an incredible opportunity as smart assets. Not only as a tool for municipalities to introduce energy efficient, sustainable lighting or Internet of Things (IoT) devices; but also as a channel for mobile network operators (MNOs) to extend their reach and network density through cities.

Lighting can consume as much as 20% of a municipality’s operating budget, so many local governments are exploring ways to deploy cost- and energy-saving smart lighting solutions. Yet with the right approach, smart lighting can be more than just an economiser: it can be the foundational enabler of a wide range of smart community applications.

Smart lighting gives municipalities fine-grained control over when lights switch on and off, as well as brightness levels and real-time monitoring of maintenance and repair requirements. Those kinds of capabilities can reduce operating costs by up to 80% while helping governments meet their sustainability goals and public safety responsibilities through better-lit public spaces. That alone makes smart lighting compelling, but its unrealised potential comes from the inherent requirement for fixtures throughout the system to be linked. By empowering these assets with 5G and Wi-Fi, cities will create a network with nearly limitless potential. Expanding coverage in previously hard to reach or crowded locations and providing the foundation for the ubiquitous coverage needed to create smart communities.

A new type of connectivity

Using lighting infrastructure to amplify connectivity fits seamlessly with how community needs are evolving from ‘to the building’-type connections to more widespread and continuous coverage. That shift is being driven in part by the growing demand for ‘micro’ and ‘nano’ connectivity to support IoT devices, and by requirements for densified communications using existing power sources.

Instead of having to deploy fibre for ubiquitous connectivity, communities can use wireless-enabled lamp posts to tap into the existing fibre network and take broadband transmissions airborne. Many use cases reveal the advantages of this. Consider a major city like London, which may have over 600 CCTV cameras per square kilometre. Conventionally, each of those cameras needs a fibre connection. With smart lighting, a single lamp post can become the key point of injection that connects to the fibre network and delivers broadband wirelessly.

Our strategic partner, Signify (formerly Phillips Lighting), is a pioneer in sustainable lighting innovation. Their products include lighting units that can communicate wirelessly at multi-gigabit speeds, providing a ‘virtual fibre’ solution that enables citywide broadband applications. At those data rates, public lighting infrastructure can connect and provide coverage to schools, office buildings and small businesses for a wide range of applications. Adding sensors can give municipalities insights into road traffic patterns, overcrowding in public spaces, air quality and more. Providing the rich information stream required for future planning and public safety enabled by data analytics and AI.

Seamless connectivity for all

Different communities have diverse needs, and smart lighting infrastructure has the flexibility to address the full range. In episode three of our Smart communities podcast series, Khalid Aziz, Signify’s Senior Vice President of Global Ventures and Business Leader in Smart Connectivity Solutions, classified the various needs into three broad tiers. Tier one includes the big, dense urban environments of major centres where there can be millions of users and a vast number of stakeholders in the connectivity infrastructure itself. These demand a mature, strategic neutral hosting approach to deploy the infrastructure smartly, efficiently and in a way that meets all stakeholder requirements.

Cities within the second category see themselves in competition with big centres, because if they can’t offer the same connectivity and services, they may find it harder to attract or retain citizens and businesses. With less complexity than larger hubs, these cities can quickly leverage their existing lighting infrastructure as a platform for connectivity. Accelerating adoption and creating a more competitive proposition.

Tier three encompasses smaller communities that are often excluded from the connectivity discussion. These include rural and remote communities that can’t usually justify or attract heavy upfront infrastructure investment. This creates a digital divide between these communities and larger cities and lighting infrastructure can help to bridge this gap. Existing lighting grids, enabled with wireless capability, can fill the void between fibre to the node and premises. Helping to deliver fixed wireless level connectivity to more households.

In all three tiers, there’s a growing demand for outdoor Wi-Fi. Providers like Signify expect the demand to increase by 18% as people make greater use of outdoor environments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smart lighting as a base for connectivity can also help meet that demand.

It takes partnership

As city environments become more crowded, MNOs need to densify networks to ensure they can still provide the same level of quality to their customers. With vertical real-estate at a premium, small cell implementation at ground-level is the most effective option to expand reach throughout urban communities. With thousands of light posts, bus stops, traffic lights and CCTV cameras already connected to power; the path to expanding network coverage is clear.

Given that most street-level assets are owned by municipal government, public-private partnership and a neutral host model need to be adopted so that all MNOs can gain equitable access. This is the model we apply to our deployments at BAI. One that partners with cities to achieve their goals, accommodates MNOs’ need to expand reach and accommodates smart lighting infrastructure seamlessly to ensure coverage for citizens throughout their communities.

When cities, neutral host infrastructure players and MNOs work together, every lamp post can become a network node, creating a mesh that covers the entire community and provides seamless connectivity for all kinds of devices.

Get more of the smart lighting story in our podcast with Khalid Aziz, Signify’s Senior Vice President of Global Ventures and Business Leader in Smart Connectivity Solutions.