Speak to the right people and Africa is about much more than just the digital divide

Yesteryear’s conversation in Africa was all about balancing the commercial realities of bridging the digital divide, but this year’s AfricaCom has showcased the bigger ambitions of South Africa.

Perhaps we haven’t been giving the right people the podium in the past, but the conversation in Africa has always been focused on the same thing. How do you deliver connectivity to the masses on a continent which has significantly lower ARPU than more developed regions? While this is still a priority, this year’s AfricaCom conference is demonstrating there are bigger ambitions than simply enhancing coverage.

Yesterday we heard MTN’s ambitions to create a more agile organization which operates in the OTT space and can be branded as a digital services beast, and this morning’s presentations had a smart city twist. It might seem odd that we’re discussing such advanced ideas when basic connectivity is an issue, but why not? If Africa is going to compete in the digital era these conversations need to happen now, and these individuals need to be given their time in the limelight. The smart city segment in South Africa is an excellent example.

Looking at Cape Town, Omeshnee Naidoo, the city’s Director of Information Systems, told the audience the city has a fibre spine 1000km long but the project is still at the starting gate. The infrastructure rollout is set to finish in 2021, while the team has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Google to provide public wifi. The next step is figuring out how the initiative can now incorporate the citizens.

Johannesburg is in a similar position. Lawrence Boya, the smart city Director, said the city also has a fibre spine 1000km long, and currently more than 1500 public wifi spots. The challenge now is optimising the infrastructure and making sure government services are making use of the assets not going down the private route. Boya also highlighted the team are trying to figure out how to take the concept of smart cities down to a personal level for the citizens.

In both of these examples, steady progress is being made and the idea of the smart city might not be that far away. More government help is needed, both from a policy side as Boya highlighted South Africa currently lacks the framework to make smart cities sustainable, but also collaboration. Naidoo suggested public sector across the board in South Africa is far too siloed. To be fair to some local governments however, data sets have been opened up to the general public, providing the fuel for these new ideas.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to be honest, but perhaps we are guilty of pigeon holing Africa. Too many people, and admittedly Telecoms.com does this too often, suggest the only challenges in Africa are focused on expanding the connectivity footprint. This is patronising and ignores the excellent work which is happening further up the stack. It’s not the case that these initiatives are difficult to find, but maybe we need to give them more airtime instead of taking the easy ‘Africa needs to improve connectivity’ angle.

BBWF 2018: Open data is the key to nailing smart cities

In an entertaining session at Broadband World Forum, a common theme emerged; open data, which is a key component of any successful smart city programme.

The format was an interesting one. Four smart cities were given seven minutes to explain their proposition, and then three minutes to answer questions. Featured were Milan, Athens, Helsinki and Amsterdam, though thanks to your correspondent getting lost on the show floor, the Amsterdam pitch was missed and will not get the attention it deserves. That said, the common theme throughout was open data.

Starting in Milan, data is being used to create a hub of intrigue for start-ups. There isn’t necessarily a focus on segment or vertical, more a top-line ambition to create jobs and value for the economy. As part of the initiative, more than 300 data sets have been made available for citizens and businesses to create new applications and services. Looking at the numbers, the scheme should be deemed a success.

There are currently 1600 start-ups based in the city, out of the total of roughly 8000 across the whole of Italy. 10,000 people are directly employed (or own) start-ups, 80% of which survive the first two years of operation, the most dangerous time for any business. These are certainly promising numbers.

In Helsinki the message is the same. The Mayor has an ambition to create the world’s ‘most functional city’ through digital, with tourism a key factor. Part of this story is opening data up to the community and local businesses to create value.

Finally, over in Athens, open data has been used in a different way. Thanks to financial difficulties in Greece, governments are not trusted. This makes it incredibly difficult to launch new schemes, though by opening up data to the general public and businesses, Konstantinos Champidis, the Chief Digital Officer for Athens, said the team are regaining credibility. The aim here is not only to try and help those citizens create something new, but develop a culture of transparency to regain the trust.

Trust is a key element in these smart cities strategies, as while open data does fuel innovation, the data has to be sourced in the first place. Should citizens not be open to having information about them or their activities collecting and analysed, the whole concept of the data economy runs dry.

We’re sure the presentation from the city of Amsterdam was equally as interesting as the three we saw, but the theme was plainly clear here; open data is a critical component of the smart cities mix.

Exeter and Leeds win National Infrastructure Commission prize

With the technology world dreaming of autonomous vehicles, everyone has to remember perfecting the technology is only part of the battle. The roads have to be updated as well.

This is a concept the National Infrastructure Commission has understood, and looked to address. The national Roads for the Future competition looks to address these very problems with a £50,000 prize fund to fuel new ideas. It might not be an astronomical figure, but the lessons learned will certainly be useful.

And the winners are… City Science based in Exeter and the Leeds City Council.

“The vehicles of tomorrow will be very different to those we see around us today. We need to make sure our roads are ready for this revolution,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt. “With such a strong shortlist narrowing down the entries was no easy task, but the ideas put forward by City Science and Leeds set them apart. I’ve been really pleased by the enthusiasm for our competition, and I hope it leads to ever-greater interest not just in the technology in the vehicles, but also in the roads they will travel on.”

In Exeter, City Science will examine how sections of roads in urban areas could initially be dedicated to driverless vehicles, as a key step in kick-starting their take-up and integrating them safely into the existing transport network. Over in Leeds, the council will investigate how the data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light sequencing, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

“Over the past three months, this project has given us the opportunity to explore the enormous potential of CAVs and set out a tangible vision to deliver their benefits on the UK’s roads.,” said Laurence Oakes-Ash, CEO of City Science. “It is essential that we get the rollout of CAVs right, using them in ways that can integrate with mass transit, promote healthy cities and create successful communities.”

“While digitally connected and autonomous vehicles are still a long way down the road, they have the potential to offer massive benefits in major cities like Leeds,” said Leeds City Council executive member for regeneration, transport and planning, Councillor Richard Lewis. “We look forward to continuing our work with all our partners and stakeholders to turn this innovation into reality.”

The other short-listed entries were how CAVs can be best deployed to beat congestion and improve the air quality (entry from Immense), Arup’s entry assessed the future management of the side of the road through the introduction of flexible kerb space, while Aecom’s idea was to investigate how technology can enable traffic lights to ‘talk’ to vehicles.

Back in January, the National Infrastructure Commission, alongside Highways England and Innovate UK, launched the Roads for the Future competition received 81 entries with ideas for how the UK’s road network could be adapted to maximise the potential benefits these new vehicles could bring. These ideas could have investigated any aspect of the segment such as new travel opportunities, freeing up time focused on driving, and helping to improve safety.

The competition itself followed the release the first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment, a report recommendations for how the identified infrastructure needs to be altered or adapted for autonomous vehicles. Some of these recommendations included that the Government devise a National Broadband Plan by Spring 2019, to deliver full fibre connections across the whole of the country, including those in rural areas.

Technology is obviously critical for the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles, as is the 4G/5G infrastructure, but it is nice to see the roads are being considered as well.

Smart Cities are about connected people, not just connected things

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Jeff Singman, VP, Product Kandy Business Solutions at Ribbon Communications, looks at the growth of the Smart Cities industry and what should be done to get the best out of it.

The growth of smart cities is unstoppable. So much so that international analyst house IDC, recently predicted spending on the technologies that power smart cities will reach $80 billion in 2018. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this year, talk of smart cities was in full swing with the show going above and beyond to demonstrate the full capabilities possible with the right infrastructure and technology in place.

Sensors, for example, were everywhere at the show and they are everywhere in our cities, and their benefits are becoming more obvious with every implementation, whether it’s controlling street lighting, orchestrating traffic signals, or making it easier to find an open parking spot.

These sensors and their related IoT systems are reducing energy consumption, measuring the safety and availability of drinking water, even alerting waste management teams to empty trash bins more efficiently.

Cameras are making big cities safer, with algorithms and analytics integrated to alert authorities when a backpack is left on a busy street corner or streaming live video of transportation hubs and capturing criminal activity.

But despite this technological transition, the smart city evolution is still going to be run by human beings. The smartest cities in this sense are those which are connecting public servants with advanced real-time communications platforms that make interactions more productive and efficient.

Consider the power of a law enforcement communications platform that integrates data in smart cities with first responder workflow, as one example. Expensive, complex and limited traditional “command and control” systems are being replaced with cloud communications and Communications as a Service (CaaS) approaches, which go beyond radio communications to full mobile, high definition voice, messaging and video collaboration.

With programmable networks and fully secured end-points and devices, municipal agencies can operate more efficiently and get better outcomes. This is particularly noticeable when those private real-time communications networks and applications improve cooperation between multiple appropriate departments (police, fire, water rescue, ambulance, emergency rooms, schools, etc.) and with county-wide, state-wide and national agencies.

The result? Better prevention, more readiness and preparedness in the face of both natural and unnatural disasters, and generally a faster response when communities face their hardest days.

Beyond those dramatic moments, cloud communications solutions are reducing the cost and complexity of supporting tens and often hundreds of thousands of public workers serving in city hall, the courts, libraries, schools, and more.

For example, Ribbon has been working with one of the largest and most vibrant, advanced cities in the world to transform their legacy communications systems (20-year-old telephony networks) into highly resilient, secure and more flexible platforms supporting employees in the pursuit of getting work done and serving taxpayers more creatively.

For more cities to achieve this level of technological sophistication, however, private organizations must work hand in hand with public sector IT teams on implementation. In the above example, this large city was able to bring in software-defined communications services to agencies across the entire city’s domain. Not only did this deliver mobile experiences for public servants on the go, making “customer service” more intuitive and intelligent, it did so while saving millions of dollars.

In this instance, those cost savings are being reinvested in the expansion of digital communications programs into more departments, while tying more of the behavioral data together, which will contribute towards helping teams become even more productive and effective in the community. This success can be replicated, but it takes time.

At MWC this year, the technology partnership behind the Olympic Games in 2020 announced that they aim to transform the host city, Tokyo, into a 5G smart city. Considering that almost eight million tickets were sold for the Rio Olympics, it’s clear that Tokyo will have to facilitate not only the infrastructure to power this city – another concern noted at MWC – but that these systems will also need to work seamlessly to connect a huge number of people with each other and with their surroundings. That’s a huge challenge and it will be interesting to see what path they select to enable these critical connections.

The growth of smart cities is unstoppable. Soon cities and towns will be able to sense the world around them and communicate more immediately with images, videos, and voice, the ultimate real time tool. But a smart city cannot be limited to connecting things. It must also become smart through connecting people and connecting people with things. All of this must take place in real-time, all the time, and as a foundation for more innovation to come as digital communities and community service become the norm.

 

Jeff SingmanJeff Singman has been the VP, Product Kandy Business Solutions since January 2016. A serial entrepreneur, he previously founded Vizicom to bring end-to-end next generation, real time communications products and services to businesses after having worked for and served many Fortune 500 companies in the areas of media, software, technology, web, mobile and e-commerce. Jeff is expert at connecting people and ideas with the resources, processes and ecosystems that accelerate success as change itself accelerates. His experience includes IT, security, telecom and software, with depth in industries including media, entertainment, financial, and healthcare verticals.

Smart signalling, intelligent kerbs and dynamic sat-nav; the roads of tomorrow

The National Infrastructure Commission has announced the shortlist of finalists for its competition to design roads fit for autonomous vehicles and the digital economy.

The aim of the Roads for the Future competition, launched in partnership with Highways England and Innovate UK, was to encourage the development of ideas to prepare physical infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. Smart traffic lights, flexible use of kerbsides, segregated driverless zones, and sat-navs were among the entries, which did bring forward some pretty interesting ideas.

“We can see for ourselves the progress in developing cars for the future, with trials of driverless cars taking place across the country – we now need to make sure the technology on our roads keeps up,” said John Armitt, Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission. “These five entries clearly stood out and I look forward to seeing how their ideas develop further over the coming months.”

The finalists will not have three months to develop their ideas, before the overall winner will be announced in the autumn. So who are the five finalists?

AECOM An American engineering firm, which has come up with the idea of moderating the speeds of cars around junctions to ensure the vehicle approaches traffic lights just as they are turning green. It’s an interesting idea which will manage a consistent flow of traffic, reducing congestion and also pollution. The concept will be tested using a simulation model of the A59 in York.

Arup Using a high street in London, Arup will test out its FlexKerbs idea which can alter the use of kerbsides dependent on the time of day and requirements. Everyday features such as double yellow lines, parking bays or cycle lanes would no longer have to be permanent, and could be adapted dynamically according to the specific demands in real-time.

City Science A small firm based in Exeter which will test out the idea of sectioning off existing roads for the exclusive use of driverless vehicles. The process will mitigate risk, as well as creating distinctions between autonomous and manually-driven vehicles, perhaps aiding the normalisation process.

Immense Solutions A spin out from the Transport Systems Catapult which will aim to aid the development of satellite navigation systems. The aim here is a simple one; use data from sensors on street furniture and other vehicles to optimise travel routes in real-time. Google Maps sort of does this at the moment, but it is an incredibly rudimentary approach which is based on most-likely conditions, not real-time data. The team will be working with Oxfordshire County Council, using simulations of four busy local roads.

Leeds City Council Here the local authority will examine how data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light systems, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

The focus on autonomous vehicles so far has been very focused on a small aspect of the technology, but like the deployment of fibre, the physical elements will be one of the biggest challenges. As it stands physical infrastructure, such as roads or street furniture, is not up to scratch when it comes to managing autonomous vehicles.

“With 81 entries received, our Roads for the Future competition has demonstrated the keen interest there is across industry to be at the forefront of the technologies supporting the introduction of driverless cars,” said Bridget Rosewell, Chair of the Judging Panel for the Roads for the Future competition.

“We wanted to see how the rules of the road, road design and traffic management could all be adapted to accommodate these new vehicles – and these five entries particularly demonstrated the exciting potential there is to make the best use of those we already have.”