Smart City networks have been heralded as a thing for the future for the last ten years. Their proliferation has been just over the horizon, tantalizingly close yet in reality never getting any closer. A prevailing argument is that the advent of 5G will be the impetus necessary to get everyone jumping on board.

The truth behind the lack of adoption is much more simple. The cost and practical considerations of operating a Smart City network as is commonly proposed, using traditional wireless network providers, is not sustainable when compared to the expected return on investment.

A fully operating, comprehensive cellular-based Smart City network is really expensive and impractical. A cellular wireless network is a huge consumer of power and service subscription rates are high when multiplied by the necessary thousands of sensor end points. Plus, cellular sensors simply cannot be everywhere due to sensor power access and consumption rates. Battery technology is not advanced enough nor cheap enough to sustain the sensor power demands, so batteries would have to be constantly replaced. Every municipality in the country has very restrictive budget, so cellular networks are simply not economically feasible.

So what is to be done with Smart City networks, and how do we make them a reality to benefit the urban populations in America? The answer is to think about them differently, and understand what Smart City networks are really all about.

According to Wikipedia: “A Smart City is an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to collect data, then use insights gained from that data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime detection, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.”

This definition is without necessary nuance and suggests an intrusive, centralized, government- orientated series of tools that will lead to the promised land of universal data management all running over a ubiquitous high-speed cellular wireless network, which is something that will never become a reality.

Wireless low-power wide-area networks such as LoRa are a completely viable alternative. The technology already exists, but have to be built locally. They are inexpensive to construct and to maintain. Sensors for these networks can operate on a button battery for years or can operate on solar power. With such networks, the return on investment is easily justified in a very short timeframe.

Realistically, our Smart City future looks something like this more rational definition:

“A Smart City is an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to collect data then use insights gained from that data to serve centralized (governmental) applications such as efficient management of assets, resources and services and decentralized (citizen) applications such as insights into rainfall, microclimates and air quality. Cellular technology is used for data collection where there is a ready source of power, where large data throughput is necessary and where there there are relatively few sensor endpoints. Low-power wide area networks are used where there is no ready source of power, minimal data throughput is sufficient, and where thousands of endpoints must be supported.”

Once we become accustomed to what is financially possible and what is not, we can set realistic expectations for when the benefits of Smart City technology stops being just over the horizon, and is firmly in our grasp.