As a technologist, I’ve been fascinated to read about the promise of 5G — augmented reality, connected cars, avatars. At last, the city of the future realized! But, disappointingly, not just yet …

With any “revolutionary” technology there’s lots of buzz and hype, but that can jade those on the outside into thinking it’s such a long way off. They think, I won’t worry about that now, and it goes on the to-do pile.

In a 2018 IDC survey of mobile operators, government (including city infrastructure) emerged as the number 1 industry target for 5G, with 55% of operators believing the vertical showed the most revenue potential for 5G. Do governments still feel the same? Or have they simply added 5G to the bottom of a long list?

Here’s why I think it’s imperative for cities, master planners, and developers to go beyond the hype, get knowledgeable, and start 5G planning today.

5G Architecture and Capabilities

Let’s start with some basics. G stands for “generation,” and there has been roughly a new generation every decade since the ’80s. We’re now at number 5 — hence 5G.

So what about the architecture? There are three main elements to a mobile network that are important to understand in terms of long-term planning:

  • Radio access network (RAN): largely the hardware — masts and antennae — that is visible in cities
  • Core network: where much of the software resides that provides the transition from cell to cell and routes appropriately as you move around
  • Transport network: the final element in the architecture and the part that links the components above together

All of these elements change with each new “G,” but the defining component is the RAN, which accesses the finite resource of electromagnetic spectrum.

Below are the main capabilities of 5G that will unlock certain properties of the network as the standards emerge:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB): providing faster access
  • Ultra-reliable/low-latency communications (URLLC): providing the near-real-time response needed to control machine-to-machine communications
  • Massive machine-type communication (MMTC): enabling hundreds of thousands of devices to be connected to a single site cell
  • Network slicing: carving a virtual segment through the network that can be ringfenced to provide a particular service and therefore guaranteed performance

The generational cycle for mobile communications is inevitable, but for cities it is hard to reconcile the faster pace of change with the slower pace of the evolving built environment.

The Elevator for Digital Cities

As cities are bound by physical space, so 5G is bound by another finite resource — the electromagnetic spectrum. This becomes congested as both the number of users and the intensity of the data requirements increase, so the generational step change required is that of encoding the data to make it more efficient and to cram more data into the available spectrum.

The improvements in speed, capacity, and reliability are what make it special, as outlined above. Take the elevator as an example. The concept had existed for some time, but the capabilities of speed, capacity, reliability, and safety were paramount for mass adoption among people rather than just for goods. Elisha Otis is credited with solving these issues, installing the first public elevator in New York following a demonstration at the World’s Fair in 1854.

For me, a revelation about urban master planning was that it’s very long term — a century even — but buildings are transient on that horizon, perhaps even as short-lived as a decade or so in some Asian cities.

So, coming from London with a history of intergenerational projects that outlasted their original planning horizon — the London Underground and the sewers, for example — how do you begin to even plan for a digital landscape where software cycles around within weeks and even digital hardware infrastructure within a decade? The answer? Accept the innovation cycles and plan for them.

If a building is transient on the master planning horizon, then so your radio access network must be transitional. Buildings will come and go and so will RANs and standards within a decade.

Given your digital master plan will cover many technologies, you might find that your connectivity infrastructure is surprisingly durable compared with other software components.

Cities solved the finite land resource problem by building upwards. In the early 1800s, the upper floors of buildings commanded less rent, as it was considered an inconvenience to climb stairs, so there were no tall buildings.

The economic impact of the elevator in cities is undeniable — transforming where the highest value places were in a building and the compactness of development enabling dense cities from London to Singapore.

The speed, capacity, and reliability improvements to the mobile network that 5G brings are critical to the enablement of multiple smart city projects to run simultaneously in the future, as well as bringing reassurance around safety when applied to use cases such as traffic management and, eventually, autonomous vehicles.

The development of 5G is analogous to the continuous improvement of the elevator — and will have a similar economic impact.


As transformative as the elevator has been to the architecture and the economic prospects of the urban environment, so 5G could be as impactful again to cities in the future. Whether it’s support for autonomous vehicles in the U.K. or immersive media to recreate a historic digital twin for tourism in Italy, there are many exciting possibilities ahead.

Success with mobile infrastructure requires long-term strategic thinking and not a focus on short-term vanity projects. With that, I urge you to move 5G planning up the to-do list and start learning more about the impact it can have on your projects today.

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