This blog is part of our series for World Cities Day 2021 — sharing perspectives from major centres around the world on how connected infrastructure is making cities smarter, more resilient, and more sustainable.

When pedestrians in central Sydney found themselves dusted with ash from the country’s black summer bushfires in 2019/ 2020, it was a sharp reminder that even Australia’s largest, most urban city is not immune to the effects of climate-related disasters. Then, as now, communications networks played an important role in keeping citizens informed and first responders connected. The next generation of connected technologies have the potential to make communities across the country even more resilient and sustainable.

When connectivity is needed most

Along with bushfires, Australia is also susceptible to draughts, floods, cyclones, erosion and climbing sea levels. The occurrence of these events is on the rise in this era of climate change, making it essential to have robust communication networks in place that can keep people connected when it is needed most.

At BAI Communications, we’re proud to provide connectivity that has helped keep Australians safe and informed for decades. The public safety network BAI operates and maintains on behalf of the New South Wales Telco Authority is one of the largest in the world, used by 50 emergency services and utilities at 221 locations across the state. BAI also manages broadcast services at 752 sites across the country which deliver television and radio services to 99% of Australia’s population. And all our wide-area broadcast coverage equipment is supported by generators to supplement battery backups for when disasters might cause power infrastructure failure. These networks ensure emergency information can be delivered to first responders and residents inside and outside disaster zones.

In the context of today’s climate reality, and with communities seeking to become smarter, more sustainable and more responsive in meeting public needs, there is still a lot of untapped potential for what advanced communications networks could do for cities as well as regional and remote areas across Australia. Before investments can be made in smart applications to improve the lives of citizens and uplift sustainability, we must first address the digital divide and resolve gaps in access to connectivity.

Bridging the digital divide

Australia’s geography and population distribution make connectivity challenging outside inner-city hubs. Vast, sparsely populated distances create islands of connectivity with limited or non-existent coverage throughout parts of the country. Even in the residential communities that make up the Greater Sydney Area, broadband capacity can be limited, with many households relying on copper connections from the node unless they choose to upgrade their connection. A combined vision of ubiquitous coverage throughout the country should bring together the best of existing networks and supplement as needed so the whole country has coverage, all the way out into the bush.

As urban and rural communities wrestle with the challenge of enabling comprehensive connectivity, many are seeing the benefit of neutral hosting, whereby a single provider designs, builds and operates the infrastructure, and government, mobile network operators (MNOs) and other service providers use it to deliver services. It’s cost-effective, streamlined and much simpler than having multiple parallel networks rolled out. This model is well established in North America and the UK and gaining traction around the world. We know this firsthand at BAI from our experience building and operating broadcast networks in Australia and citywide transport networks overseas.

Broadcasters, who traditionally owned and operated their own networks, have come to appreciate the advantages of shared infrastructure, especially not having to make their own capital investments. MNOs are also rethinking their traditional approach of independently deploying and operating infrastructure, looking at how to share investment and infrastructure to address the challenges they face with the deployment of 5G. Neutral hosting of active network infrastructure is becoming a natural evolution of the passive neutral host model for tower infrastructure, which the MNOs have been doing in Australia for years.

One of the main 5G opportunities for neutral host services, is in the deployment of 5G small cells and this is just starting to happen in markets overseas. In these small cell metro sites, it makes sense for MNOs to share services and quickly address capacity issues in their metro network, particularly given the increasing difficulty in obtaining metro sites, and the growing capital constraints MNOs are facing. Another main use case for neutral host services is in the regional areas where there is an incentive to utilise shared services to economically service less densely populated areas with 4G/5G. Finally, there are also opportunities in the 5Gmm fixed wireless market for the utilisation of neutral host services to provide wholesale broadband services in many areas of Australia, again from small cell sites.

Ultimately, it is a partnership between neutral hosts, MNOs and municipal governments that will help provide ubiquitous coverage and bridge the digital divide in Australia.

Connectivity is the first step to smarter built environment

With ubiquitous connectivity, communities across Australia can begin to take advantage of smart applications to make urban and rural areas more sustainable in the face of climate change. Devices can be joined to the Internet of Things (IoT), enabling a comprehensive set of digital services that can support efforts in resilience or sustainability. These could include alerts to help drivers of electric vehicles find parking spots or charging stations, monitors to ensure dumpsters and garbage cans get emptied promptly to reduce waste, or air quality sensors which provide updates about smoke levels. These can be augmented with tailored recommendations based on user profiles, for example, letting people with respiratory illnesses know when air quality levels mean it might be safer to wear a mask or stay indoors.

It is key that this connectivity for smart devices extends indoors and that we bring more pervasive, carrier-agnostic connectivity into buildings. With full in-building connectivity, residential apartments and offices can be outfitted with IoT-supported smart building solutions. These can optimize how buildings systems (including lighting, HVAC and others) work together to keep occupants comfortable at a lower environmental cost.

The opportunities for greater connectivity throughout Australia are tremendous for everything from emergency services to energy-efficient buildings. BAI is working with our partners to deliver the required connectivity to more people in more places to support resilience, sustainability and smart city goals.