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Intelligence Brief: Assessing latest smart city and tower asset developments

This year, June is a notable month for the telecoms and technology industry because it’s ringing MWC21 Barcelona [1] in my ears. I am clinging to my excitement as the ecosystem comes together later this month to learn about and experience, the announcements, demos and launches which will shape the future of the industry.

Of course, the event is hybrid this year, meaning you can take in all the updates from the industry in real time from the comfort of wherever you’ve got used to working from.

The theme of MWC21 Barcelona is Connected Impact and as we scan through our news feed from the last few weeks, this is corroborated in the business strategies, industry partnership and other announcements from ecosystem players.

Based on the recent news from our Industry Feed, the two topics we selected to take a deeper look at are smart city developments and operator tower monetisation efforts.

As always, we want to highlight the news items which might not have got a lot of attention, highlight the topics they signal and how they could play an important role in shaping the future of industry.

5G: A critical piece of the smart city puzzle
Do you know?
Global smart city connections are expected to experience a massive increase from 307 million in 2020 to 837 million by 2025 (see chart 1, below, click to enlarge). Cities and countries have been focused on smart city opportunities for years, but the market has generally developed only in selected areas (smart meters, lighting), leaving broader smart city ambitions unrealised.


So, will 5G change things?

There is no dearth of narrative on how the ability of 5G to connect millions of devices per square km, the ultra-low latency and high throughput creates an optimal canvas to paint the smart city landscape. But, what also differentiates 5G and makes it a key enabler is the new virtual and cloud native architecture of the technology and its confluence with technologies including AI, cloud, and edge (see chart 2, above, click to enlarge). The cherry on the cake is 3GPP including licensed LPWA technologies, the key technology for IoT, as part of 5G specifications.

With 5G now available from 168 operators in 68 countries (mobile and fixed wireless access), operators, vendors and software providers are making inroads by forging partnerships and announcing their plans. In few such recent developments:

15 June: TIM partners with Enel and Leonardo for smart cities project
2 June: NOS launches Smart City project in Albufeira
2 June: Qualcomm to test C-V2X in Georgia Smart City
31 May: HKT teams up with start-ups to accelerate smart city development
27 May: Sony plans to conduct AI based smart city trials in Rome in June
24 May: O2 to enable 5G based smart tram project in Pilsen
21 May: NT, Mavenir, 5GCT and Cisco collaborate to launch first 5G Open RAN Smart City in Thailand

So what?
The technology has the potential to unlock an array of opportunities for the ecosystem players in the smart city space. It is evident from the flux of announcements, highlighting the recent momentum gained, that operators and other ecosystem players have started venturing into this space to capitalise on the existing opportunities.

But to make the most of it, they will also need to be mindful of challenges including funding, lack of interoperability between systems from different vendors and who will take the E2E ownership which can impede the progress.

There is no unanimous solution to all the challenges, but as always, the timing of involvement is key. Governments and municipalities will be at the front and centre in the smart city development, however it is important for the ecosystem players to get involved from the planning stage. Collaborating early can help unveil business models that allow for cost and benefit sharing alongside the allocated budgets from the government. Coming together at the planning stage also ensures creation of interoperable solutions and open platforms.

Ultimately, the early involvement can help to lessen the impact of these challenges, and creates an opportunity to maximise on the potential benefits.

Related material: MWL Themed week on Making Cities Smarter [3]

Tower strategy
Do you know?
Tower monetisation, in different forms, is becoming a mainstream financing option for operators. There is a clear shift in business models from controlling infrastructure assets to sharing, and evolving into sale and leaseback models.

Why? With heavy debt burdens, and increased capex levels to support the deployment of next-generation technology, operators need to find money somewhere and tower monetisation comes as a viable option.

The ongoing trend of monetising tower assets via sales is also noted in the announcements from operators in the last few weeks.

2 June: Cellnex acquires 3,150 T-Mobile masts in Netherlands
2 June: Airtel to offload its tower assets in Tanzania
1 June: Telefonica completes sale of Telxius tower business in Europe to ATC
17 May: MTN receives 20 expressions of interest for its telecom towers

So what
The model of sale and leaseback agreements poses a win-win situation for service providers and tower operators. There are clear benefits for service providers in divesting stakes from their tower arms. The funds unlocked can be used to reduce debt and make investments in new infrastructure, helps to maintain focus on their core business and also drive opex efficiencies.

From the lens of tower companies, the business model works as they earn revenue from multiple tenants on the same infrastructure, a model allowing for the scalability and flexibility required to build next generation infrastructure.

Where tower companies are competing for a bigger slice of infrastructure assets with all these acquisitions, they need to remember while scale is important, so also are the new features and innovations including edge and cloud. To remain competitive in the long term, they should allocate part of their investments to create future ready infrastructure which can also support new generation technologies and features including like AI, edge and cloud.

All the above analysis is based on news curated by GSMA Intelligence’s team of analysts and taken from their Industry Updates feed, available here [4].

– Radhika Gupta – head of data acquisition, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


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