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What will Smart Cities mean for Telecom Operators?

With the prevalence of smart cities and digital transformation seeping their way into the industry and our lives, the role of telecom operators is becoming more crucial than ever before.

It is rapidly becoming necessary for almost every city to delve into the exploration of the ways in which they can begin to deploy smart city technologies that are specific to their respective cities. Each city comes with its own advantages and challenges. The key is to deploy these technologies, not just for the sake of holding the buzzword-filled title of a ‘digitally transformed, 5G-ready, smart city’, but to actually determine and pinpoint the areas in which the city could use some improvements and how they could leverage emerging technologies to further their growth.

This is crucial as the demands of consumers are changing and the ways in which they expect to receive their services has also changed immensely. We, as consumers, now expect services to be provided to us in real-time, more or less.

Telcos all over the MENA region have been working extensively to keep up with the fourth industrial revolution which has brought with it a number of challenges. There is a particular need for this to due diligence to be applied when dealing with these challenges as the MENA region, namely the GCC, is home to one of the most mature telecommunications markets in the world which possesses high smartphone ownership and mobile penetration.

There seems to be a widespread need amongst the tech-savvy consumers of the GCC to have the latest and greatest in terms of technology. This is a very prominent market where Telcos need to continuously transform their business models and reinvent themselves to keep up with the demands of the population, taking into account the growing number of digital natives.

As smart cities become more prevalent in the GCC region, business models will continue to change, as digital transformation is not a one-step process but a multi-step process which takes time. Telcos must also be highly aware of the shifting trends within the ecosystem that need to be addressed. Digital transformation is now a culture.

While Telcos persist to keep up with this fast paced telecom ecosystem, they are beginning to notice that although digital transformation brings with it a number of challenges, it also presents them with tremendous opportunities when it comes to opening up new revenue streams.

Telecom operators are no longer just that. In recent years, they have transformed their business models to make way for new revenue streams which has essentially made them take on a more customer-centric approach to their offerings.

In terms of connectivity, operators could potentially form partnerships with local councils and SMEs in an effort to improve the connectivity of that given city, through providing easy access a full range of networks from mobile broadband to Wi-Fi.

Additionally, when it comes to partnerships, operators could collaborate with businesses from a variety of sectors to offer end-to-end services for their customers which could range from transportation to security to healthcare, thus enhancing their offerings to further consolidate the alleged ‘smartness’ of any given city.

It has been widely speculated that operators must engage and collaborate with everyone. This could include all stakeholders which range from local authorities to educational institutions to startups. An example of how this could be done would be in the case of citizens. If Telcos put in the effort to engage with the citizens of their respective city at the early stages of their transformation, they could receive feedback about how well their initiatives are working and find ways to improve the areas which need the most attention to enable the utmost efficiency and to ensure that the right areas are being prioritized.

Also, operators now own a tremendous amount of data which can essentially be used by the city’s enterprises to further enhance their services and contribute to the city’s transformation as a whole, ensuring that the __ which are being put in place are beneficial to that particular circumstance and context. Data could be anonymized and aggregated in a way such that the city’s stakeholders will be able to better understand the ways in which its citizens are moving, what the gaps are and identify the places that may need room for improvement. This data could prove particularly useful and insightful for Telcos. An example of this would be using the data to aid IoT devices such as connected cars for instance, through making sure the network is up to date on the latest information regarding traffic flows in certain areas and statistics outlining the road safety and predictability of most accidents in certain areas.

 It is also of the essence to consider the impact of 5G within the smart city environment. It is no doubt that 5G will accelerate the growth of smart cities around the world, making it easier for all service providers to offer services in real-time, in the fastest, most efficient way possible. 5G offers a plethora of possibilities with regards to applications that were non-existent before. The abundance of connectivity will accelerate this and create significant revenue opportunities for Telcos.

However, change brings with it challenges; whether they be expected or unprecedented.
We are only experiencing the tip of the iceberg of possibilities that smart cities will bring about. Some of the challenges that could potentially arise from smart cities and their technologies would be setting unclear or unrealistic digital transformation strategies.

Another issue to consider here is one that is ever-present (as of yet): the skills gap in the industry, the digital talent- or lack thereof.

A very important factor to consider here is simplicity. Customers not only expect to receive real-time services, but they expect them to be simple and easy to access as well. The primary purpose of introducing new and disruptive technologies into our lives is to ensure simplicity by any means possible. This may be a challenge for legacy industries and particularly for local authorities which require a range of different processes, some of which are lengthy such as in the case of granting licenses and certificates. In the case of local authorities, Telcos could simplify these processes by making themselves more approachable and using language that is easier for local authorities to understand whilst also maintaining clear and flexible solutions, contracts and offerings to ease them into starting new projects.

At the same time, cities need to be more flexible and open. Meaning that slow and bureaucratic processes need to remain in the past.

With 5G rollouts being just around the corner, the role of Telcos in cities and a number of industries is being consolidated even further. 5G offers superfast broadband speeds, ultra-low latency and high throughput. Many operators are currently edging closer to rolling out this next generation technology which is believed to drastically change our lives in the way that it will accelerate the AR/VR market and make IoT devices more efficient, among other things. In addition to this, 5G enables network slicing which is essentially the separation of multiple virtual networks. The networks operate on the same hardware for various purposes, supporting different use cases. In the case of smart cities, this can be particularly useful. In overcrowded cities, this could decongest the network infrastructure thus enabling more reliable and efficient connectivity.

Operators bring with them the promise of innovation and add a great deal of value to cities. Smart cities are no longer a thing of the past and Telcos are and will continue to play a vital role in smart city ecosystems. Not only will Telcos benefit citizens and residents of their respective (smart) cities, but they would also benefit from new revenue streams.