Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the keys to making people's lives easier. It enables sensors and machine-to-machine communications for many things like smarter traffic flow, air-quality monitoring and scheduling of infrastructure repairs for the likes of street lights for more effective crime-fighting.
And IoT in turn, is enabled by 5G (fifth-generation) networks.
5G networks, like the one Vodafone will roll out next month in New Zealand - beginning with 100 sites around Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown – will offer more bandwidth (raw speed) and minimal latency (lag).
But it will also have a lot more and better-targeted capacity, network smarts and edge computing power for not only managing lots of devices able to talk to each other but the systems that run smart cities.
The net result is that a fully-deployed 5G network can enable around 1 million IoT devices per square kilometre, compared to around 100,000 with today's 4G networks.
Market research company IDC says there could be more than 40 billion IoT devices by 2025, easily out-numbering smartphone-totting humans.
But what will that mean in reality? We're already getting some exciting hints from Europe, where Vodafone already has 5G rollouts underway in several countries.
Smart machines that can talk to networks are nothing new. You could well have a smart power metre in your home, or a sat-nav system in your car constantly connected to one of today's mobile networks.
We've already got smart machines, like late-model cars with lane-control or collision-avoidance systems for automatic emergency braking. But with 5G, these elements can be combined, for much more useful systems.
Here's a real-life example. In Milan, Vodafone has been working with a local university, local government, transport authorities, Pirelli, high-tech engineering firm Altran and others to develop vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and infrastructure-to-vehicle (I2V) real-time information exchange systems, all enabled by the power of 5G.
These will yield better real-time information on road and weather conditions, extend anti-collision systems (so that two cars on different sides of an obstructed corner know where each other is) and play a key role in city-wide traffic management systems.
Other real-life testing in Milan has seen Vodafone trialling a smart-bin that not only tells the network when it's full, but manages three different recycling compartments for different types of waste. It is also trialling a Smart Gate that can collect (anonymised) information about people who enter an event.
At one of Milan's largest railway stations, Vodafone has worked with IBM and state-owned rail operator Ferrovie Dello Stato Italiane to install moveable, wireless 4K ultra-high definition security cameras - many placed in areas that could not be easily cabled. Wi-fi would have been one alternative, but it utilises an unlicensed, less secure spectrum that can encounter issues such as data shadows that hinder performance.
The 5G security camera setup feeds footage in real-time to IBM's Intelligent Video Analytics system, which works with Vodafone's Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) on the edge of its 5G network. It can spot anomalous behaviour, such as people running, but not in the direction of train about to arrive, or packages that are left unattended.
Yet this is just scratching the surface. All-up, Vodafone is working with 38 industry, education, emergency and health sector partners on no less than 50 real-world use cases.
In New Zealand, to help it hit the ground running, the company is already working with the police and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter service on new solutions for real-time, secure communications that utilise the power of 5G.
New fixed wireless solutions will help close the digital divide by offering superfast broadband at a lower price, connecting more households and businesses to smart services – and it's likely other partners will be coming onboard in the months ahead.
By Chris Keall.