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15 Jan 2022

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Smart Cities in the Caribbean and Europe implement mesh networks

Cities are increasingly interested in mesh networks for smart cities and IoT applications. Already cities in the Caribbean, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Czech Republic have implemented this type of wireless network to further improve their digital economies. Similarly, a project (in Dutch) in the Netherlands is about to go live with over 500 multipoint radios.

To give their digital economy a major boost, cities often need to invest heavily in connectivity. A telco usually starts deploying fiber networks to set up the infrastructure for a citywide network environment. In several smart cities, mesh networks have been deployed or are being implemented because they are much more flexible, but also make it possible to avoid the disruption of inner-city economies caused by digging in cables under pavements and streets. Furthermore, wireless technology is considerably cheaper than wired technology for setting up city-wide networks. A wireless network can also be expanded much more easily.

Mesh networks have been a promising wireless technology for quite a while. Its potential benefits are quite compelling. First of all, it is not necessary to build a citywide cable network. So moving to wireless is an important decision for smart cities. But why choose a mesh topology over a more traditional wireless network? Mesh networks have the advantage of not needing a backhaul network - typically a fiber network. A city-wide mesh-based wireless network is extremely flexible since all radios talk to each other and route network traffic using smart algorithms without the need for a backhaul connection for each radio.

Mesh is not a new technology. Several major network vendors offer mesh products. Recently, relatively unknown companies, like Austria's RadioLED, have also supplied quite a few mesh networks to smart cities. The RadioLED Core Network infrastructure consists of multipoint radios managed by a dashboard for measuring and monitoring. The operating system is installed in the network infrastructure, has self-healing capabilities, and handles different communication protocols. Normally, the radios are installed using the existing lighting infrastructure of a city or neighborhood. The wireless network can be easily integrated with existing networks.

As cities plan for city-wide network infrastructure as a major step in the process of digitalization of their economies, one of the major non-technical issues that need to be solved, is the governance structure. Who owns the network and who operates the network that is crucial to the digital economy of a town or city? In many countries, city governments and local telco champions like state-owned telecom providers have a major say in these kinds of projects. In these cases, the major decisions often become political, while city governments are not always the best equipped to choose between the often complex technical and financial options that are crucial to the success of a smart city infrastructure project.

Fortunately, more and more city officials around the world are acknowledging that they sometimes lack relevant knowledge. So instead of running the local wireless networks themselves, they like the idea of completely outsourcing the building and operating of the network to a commercial party. What happened in Quayside, Toronto may have diminished their enthusiasm for outsourcing though. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google, was made responsible for the waterfront network infrastructure, only to run into major problems because local citizens felt the company’s vision of huge numbers of sensors collecting all kinds of data were not in their best interest. In 2020 Sidewalk Labs decided to shut down the project.

Working with relatively small companies like Austria's RadioLED and others may offer an interesting compromise in this regard. Small vendors like these are often willing to finance such projects - especially in midsized cities. Collaboration with smaller vendors who are willing to manage the project is often easier for city officials to manage.

RadioLED is not the only vendor of mesh technology for smart cities. Other vendors include networking giants like Cisco, as well as smaller companies such as U-Blox, Orbis Mesh, and Blu Wireless.

Photo: Dimitry Anikin

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