The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) has changed our expectations of the machines we use. It is estimated that by 2020, 20 billion everyday objects will be connected to the internet. Our desire for constant interconnectedness has meant we require more from our devices. However, machine to machine communication and how it will affect our cities means we require more from our public telecoms too.

Our cities will need to be smart if they are to adapt to the demands and challenges of tomorrow. The smart city agenda offers vast potential and opportunity but only if we build and upgrade our current infrastructure on our high streets across the country.

In 2017 the Government set out bold ambitions to make the UK a pioneer in new technology such as IoT and 5G. This move was welcomed by the telecoms industry. With the UK currently lagging 35th in the world behind the likes of Bulgaria and Madagascar in broadband coverage rankings, this is the type of innovation the UK needs to embrace to realise the potential of connectivity.

It is understandable why the Government is keen to capitalise on new technology such as 5G. Research by HIS Economics estimates it will enable $12.3 trillion in global economic output by 2035 and support 22 million new jobs. With download speeds up to 1,000x faster than 4G, 5G will enable the IoT applications needed to power developments in autonomous vehicles and addressing the city-planning challenges of tomorrow.

How can IoT be deployed in the smart city agenda?

The ability of the internet of things to capture, send and receive data means we are able to create an enormous well of information which can be harnessed to enhance our future cities. These future cities are now not so far away, with much of what can make cities smart already existing today.

The environment is one area we can harness the potential of IoT to monitor changes in air quality in real-time, and then use that data to create dynamic clean air zones and help with plans for future city infrastructure.

This same approach can be taken with our transport, and the way we monitor traffic. The data can be collated to create public transport system that adapts instantly to spikes in demand or to disruptions, in turn informing the maintenance and development of transport networks in the future. Driverless vehicles also have a role to play in smart cities, helping to reduce congestion, alongside gathering data to turn them into collective decision-makers, making our roads more efficient and environmentally sustainable.

What stands in the way?

The UK has a golden opportunity to become a world leader in areas such as IoT and 5G technology, but it can only do so by investing in innovation and with the backing of government, both local and national.

However, with the Government’s forthcoming consultation on permitted development rights, there is a risk that the rollout of such technology may be slowed, impeding our drive towards building smart cities.

Permitted development rights have been the cornerstone of public telecoms in the UK for the last thirty years, ensuring new telecoms infrastructure can be installed without the obstructive planning permission process. The proposed consultation buried deep in the Government’s Autumn Budget could see these rights scrapped. Their removal would stifle innovation and investment in much-needed new telecoms infrastructure.

It would seem that the consultation stems from a misconception on the part of a handful of local authorities. Their grievance is with the next generation of ‘public call boxes’ built to replace their often badly-maintained predecessors, mostly installed back in the 1990s. Call boxes, they argue, are no longer necessary due to widespread mobile phone usage. But the new ‘call boxes’ bear little resemblance to their traditional predecessors, in the way that a smartphone bears little resemblance to an old rotary dial.

Public telecoms for the future

The next generation of call boxes, better known as streetside interactive hubs, are reimagining public telecommunications for the 21st century. On top of free calls, they provide free wi-fi, apps and services, alongside the capabilities for smart city data collation. What’s more, their streetside location and small cell deployment will be key to boosting 4G and 5G connectivity, in areas where coverage is poor or where users are likely to experience dropouts such as around Waterloo station.

The upgrading of the UK’s public telecoms infrastructure offers huge potential, helping people to connect in the present, as well as powering how we might connect people, places and things in the future. If we are to build the smart cities of tomorrow, we need to build out the streetside telecoms networks that underpin them today.