There’s a lot of hype about smart cities in Spain. This is a pioneering country in the field, with a solid organization that joins together councils and companies towards the use of ICT as a tool to arrange and optimize the operation of cities, and to improve the citizens’ quality of life.
However, rural areas are being forgotten. If the Europe 2020 goals are to be met, a relevant expenditure should be done in order to upgrade the existing networks in 4 years – not such a long time.
Smart cities demography is determined by migrant flows, particularly in geographical areas like India, China or Indonesia. This adds to the smart cities trend as a concept, the existence of megacities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, etc. Circumstances such as the high energy consumption in buildings, as well as the complex logistics services arrangement, security or urban spaces healthiness are at the core of smart cities. Figures about trends regarding the number of people living in cities, total population in the planet, energy consumption, feed supply and other key issues for our socioeconomic progress show the urgent need to optimize process and improve the citizens’ quality of life.
Beware of losing perspective
Migration to cities from rural areas is commonplace in Asia or Africa, where rural population is much higher than in other continents. In 2050, two thirds of world population will be living in cities; that’s about 6.2 billion people. The current number of megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants will be 28 in 2030.
A 60-80% of world energy is consumed in cities, while growth in the developed world will come from activity in cities up to 80%. In Spain a 79.6% of the population lives in urban areas, and the forecast is 81.7% in 2025. Anyhow, giving for granted that the future will rely necessarily on the cities is a risky decision, which in practice is being taken according to the way economies of scale are adapted to cities’ demography.
In practice quality of life in rural areas or in the cities periphery is better than in the city, if rural life involves modern services and technologies, particularly those services and technologies associated to a smart lifestyle.
Ultimately, services and products dimensioning inurban areas exclusively, without considering the peculiarities of rural areas, creates specific inequalities. This happens with one of the key issues of smart initiatives: Internet connectivity.
The definition of broadband depends on several factors. In general, we can say that it’s the sort of Internet connection that allows a consistent, no-wait access to online services. As online services become more complex and involve the use of multimedia contents, the definition of broadband should evolve accordingly. In fact, in February 2015 the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in the US redefined the concept of broadband by increasing the requirements that must be accomplished by an operator regarding latency and upstream/downstream rates, in order to sell its broadband services. In this way, 25 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream must be met in order to consider it as broadband. After this reclassification, only a 15% of the US population would have a broadband Access – a major bonus to improve the communications infrastructure.
According with the European classification within the Europe 2020 connectivity deployment plans, in 2020 the whole population should have a high-speed Internet access from 30 Mbps. On a first stage, the ‘basic’ broadband foresees rates between 512 kbps and 4 Mbps.
Services that measure the average connection rate in different counties, like Measurement Lab, provide results that need to be carefully analysed. Since they are averages, figures no not tell the whole story. For those having fibre connections, these figures can seem too low, but a country is much more than its more privileged citizens. Fibre optics and cable connections deployed by Vodafone, Telefonica, Jazztel and Orange achieve up to 300 Mbps downstream and 30 Mbps upstream. If the average connection rate is less of 6 Mbps, it means that a significant number of people have access rates of less than the maximum values – thus generating inequalities. Everyone having 6 Mbps differs a lot if compared to many above 20 Mbps, and many under 3 Mbps.
Among Internet providers, Telefonica has lower average speeds than ONO –now Vodafone– or Vodafone itself, thanks to its wide copper-based communications network. This reflects the situation of millions of Spanish who still depend on an infrastructure not suitable for the current requirements for services and communications.
Broadband is not defined just by downstream speed. In fact, for issues related to teleworking and communications, upstream rate is as relevant, or more. According to Measurement Labs data, differences are even bigger. This situation is incompatible with a suitable access to online services. In practice, the worst part corresponds to rural areas and urban periphery.
These issues affect fixed-broadband connectivity, but it’s also commonplace with latest generation mobile communication technologies like 4G. Therefore, connectivity options outside urban areas are dramatically reduced.
4G connections offer upstream and downstream Internet access rates, or even latency, and match perfectly with broadband expectations. Realistically, and for Spain, we should talk about broadband connections for connection speeds from 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. The US decision to establish minimal rates to consider a connection as broadband in 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream is excellent; but in Spain, in these circumstances for rural areas and the condition of communication networks, this benchmark is just too unrealistic. A much more stringent infrastructure would be required in terms of investments. However, if the Europa 2020 goals are to be met, a relevant expenditure should be done in order to upgrade the existing networks in 4 years – not such a long time.
Some reports published every year about the condition of the Information Society are not helpful at all to shed light on connectivity in Spain, since data taken from the INE come from questionnaires not working with real speeds, but access commercial categories. Consequently, even in those areas where real speeds are low, they are considered broadband areas if they hired ADSL. Those able to take decisions about budget allocations, if they use these qualitative reports to evaluate the broadband condition in a particular area, will possibly think that resources are not necessary neither a priority, but the quantitative reality is very different to that shown in these reports.
However, independent surveys, like the one made by the company Kelisto, show more realistically the situation of broadband access in Spain. These surveys are based on real speeds, assessing the relevant KPIs to evaluate the quality of communication networks.
Economies of scale
The reason for abandoning rural areas lies in technical issues and economy of scale. The deployment of FTTH or cable requires expensive works if not suitable conduits are available to install fibre. Junction boxes must be installed, but this deployment is attractive only for a high number of potential customers. In rural or residential areas, there are not always such a number of potential customers for the companies.
By the other hand, many ADSL connections in rural or peripheral areas use the same infrastructure as fixed analogue telephony, with copper pair run at distances from the exchange of more than 2 km. For voice, this distance is not such a problem. And for speeds of the first ADSL generation they are not a problem either. But today, distances of more than 1 km from the exchange to the homes limit the maximum speed that can be used without errors at rates of just a few Mbps downstream.
The discussion here is about the lack of regulations limiting inequalities in connectivity. There was much hype some time ago regarding issues like network neutrality, understood as the lack of any sort of priority for Internet access. With companies offering 300/30 Mbps services while keeping 3/0,256 categories, there are already Internet services which are not accessible, like multimedia communications and teleworking tools. An interesting discussion would be one considering that these differences break the neutrality principle.
There is an Internet universal access category, to which all citizens have the right – and with a downstream rate of 1 Mbps. It’s offered by Telefonica and its price is €24.08 per month with a limit of a data traffic of 5 GB monthly, from which the rate is reduced to 128 Kbps, and the initial fee is €46.10€ for the membership. Anyhow, it’s a category only accessible if no cooper pair is available.
In view of this, the smart cities scenario is not so promising if it implies leaving rural areas on inequality, considered as an anomaly instead of a vital circumstance as valid as urban areas, submitted to a holistic treatment by the Administration and the companies. Therefore, before investing in the fibre optic deployment in the cities, an egalitarian Internet Access policy should be established for all citizens – to all living in big or small communities – by calculating the return on the investment overall, and not in part.
Before the passivity of traditional telecommunication companies, reluctant to invest to improve or deploy high-speed networks suitable for broadband services and convergence of voice, data, TV and added-value services, the alternatives consist of hire the services offered by companies specialized in deploying communications networks based on wireless point-to-point technologies, like WiMax, or those employing communication satellites.
An egalitarian Internet access policy should be established for everyone, in both large and small towns
In addition to private commercial alternatives, it’s interesting to check whether other exist under the umbrella of technology initiatives supported by European funds or other subsidies. Or even search whether an infrastructure deployed as part of a local or regional investment plan funded by councils or provincial governments.
Those councils or companies that decide to face the connectivity issue in places not covered by fibre or cable networks has the interesting challenge of identifying the existing services offered – after ensuring that their coverage includes the geographical areas over which the connectivity plan is shaped. The chance to design a suitable project to receive subsidies from European funding is also an issue to be considered, or trying to negotiate with telecom operators from a possible sharing of infrastructure costs.
The case of Asturias
A detailed report for each Spanish region is beyond the reach of this article, which tries to draw attention about the precariousness of telecom infrastructures in rural areas, preventing an egalitarian access to Internet services. All the same, we’ll present a hypothetical scenario for Asturias, including the condition of its communication networks, the connectivity offer by traditional operators, the proposals made by alternative operators, and the regional grants and projects focused on enabling the access to broadband communication networks to a population on a precarious condition.
Once selected for Asturias, Measurement Labs rate data show high average figures thanks to the presence of TeleCable in urban areas. However, if only INE’s data are taken, then figures are lower. For each council or geographical area, measures of real rates at homes will be helpful to have accurate coverage maps.
The same occurs with mobile communications, except that coverage maps published by the operators at their Internet portals are quite accurate.
Vodafone, Jazztel, Telefonica, Orange or TeleCable commercial offerings are the first option for population to access Internet. If the available proposals can’t be improved, alternatives should be searched. After a first search we find three possible alternatives:
A satellite Internet services provider. The rate is 22 Mbps downstream and 6 Mbps upstream. A remarkable rate, but not the whole picture. The monthly transfer limit is 40 GB combining upstream and downstream. It’s a high figure, but for teleworking scenarios it can be scarce. Traffic is not computed during the night, but then most of the population is sleeping.
By the other hand, the latency is less than 600 ms. This is a high figure that ultimately slows services like online games, videoconference and webpages access.
It does not consider TV, and calls are considered in part only to fixed telephones.
This provider employs connectivity wireless technologies to bring, by means of directional antennas, traffic coming from a fibre backbone to areas willing to have a broadband connection.It offers different speeds with prices according to the hired performance, with a low latency and remarkable upstream rates. Telephony has an additional cost and does not include TV. Firstly, you should check whether the area to be connected belongs to the visibility zone of the point-to-point antennas. Wireless signals are transmitted from the receiver antenna to the users at every home.
It uses technologies similar to those of Oxon3 (or vice versa). In this case the speeds offered are low, although with a data upstream rate significantly higher than the one offered by precarious ADSL categories. It does not include TV services either.
In some cases, mobile communications can be the solution. Some fees offer up to 20 GB of data, like Yoigo (www.yoigo.com/tarifas/tarifas-de-contrato/la-sinfin/) for €29 per month with unlimited calls. It must be taken into account that in rural areas 4G coverage is almost sci-fi, so it should be used along with 3G speeds – but in general the speed will be better than ADSL’s. Moreover, a shared smartphone connection mode must be used to share Internet with computers at home; otherwise, a router must be bought for the SIM.
Searching a little more, we get to the Asturias webpage about infrastructures, where we find two interesting initiatives for any council willing to face the improvement of its communication networks.
An interesting proposal offering subsidies to deploy para a fibre network that later can be offered to Internet providers to bring their services to areas that otherwise would not be attractive from the point of view of investments to deploy the network.
Programa Extensión de Banda Ancha (PEBA)
This program for the whole country uses European funds to finance the deployment of high-speed and very high-speed networks within the Europa 2020 initiative. Every year support programs are made and for 2015 it’s still on.
Rural areas are a big opportunity to deploy smart services like tourism, teleworking or the electric vehicle
Connectivity is a key issue to offer smart solutions. But smart is not only about smart city. In a country like Spain, a balance between development in the cities and in rural areas should be kept, without compelling the citizens to choose the city to have access to all job, social and leisure opportunities, offered from Internet. Besides, sectors like real estate and rural tourism require consistent communication networks as in the cities. Let alone the opportunities arising from teleworking, only feasible with modern broadband communications networks.
The challenge lies on deploying these networks from the councils and regional governments, since Internet providers show little interest. There’s an opportunity on support plans like PEBA, or even directly to European initiatives with the Europa 2020 plan. This plan establishes that in 2020 all European citizens should have from 30 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
Real reports about the condition of communication networks are required. These reports must be bases on speed measurements, and then decide which options are there in context.
Rural areas are an opportunity to deploy smart services, i.e.,., rural tourism, teleworking, or the electric vehicle and its advantages, since it seamlessly matches on the rural context, where travels are usually regular at distances of less 120 km return, and with no parking issues. Fast charge wouldn’t be necessary in general, and the energy from the battery could be used as backup in case of power failure – which happen more often in rural areas. The charger networks shouldn’t be particularly dense, and regarding its usage these vehicles are much easier to drive and its maintenance is lower than for fuel cars. And electric vehicles are certainly less pollutant, since they generate less gases and les noise.
However, to deploy the electric car consistent communications networks are required to offer management services, metering and suitable support.
This is just an example among many that make non-urban areas so relevant to develop smart cities as the cities themselves.
Links of interest