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A vessel traffic management operator guides vessels at the Port Operations Control Centre at Changi Naval Base in Singapore

5G technologies will power a greener future for cities

Editor's Note:

The Center for Technology Innovation is hosting an event titled "Sustainability, smart cities, and the internet of things" on December 1 at 9am at the Brookings Institution. Register to attend the event in person or watch the live webcast here.

Once launched, fifth generation (5G) wireless technologies promise to connect billions of devices together in the internet of the things. 5G combines wireless technologies like 4G and Wi-Fi with new computing methods such as network functions virtualization and software defined networking to dramatically speed up communications in large networks of digital devices. In a new paper, Darrell West outlines the ways in which cities can apply these technologies to use scarce natural resources more efficiently. Water availability, air quality, and energy efficiency can each be improved by a network of sensors and computers analyzing real-time data. Reducing waste with 5G technologies will reap benefits from cost savings to better public health.


Resource shortages pose a particularly vexing problem for cities that fail to address them. Poor water and air quality pose an immediate threat to public health in some cities, while a continued reliance on fossil fuel energy contributes to rising temperatures worldwide. For water, wirelessly connected sensors can detect contamination and identify ways to reduce waste. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that water leaks in U.S. households waste 1 trillion gallons of water every year, enough to fill 1.5 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Sensors would also allow for more precise use of water in agriculture and industrial applications. Agriculture alone accounts for 80 percent of water demand in the U.S., representing substantial water savings potential.

5G technologies can address air quality and energy consumption by creating smarter transportation management systems. Traffic congestion in cities carries tremendous costs in terms of wasted fuel and wasted time. Drivers in Washington D.C. averaged 82 hours spent stuck in traffic each year, while drivers in China and India face even greater amounts of time burning fuel but going nowhere. The World Health Organization estimates that fine particulate air pollution from idling car exhaust and other sources kills over 3 million people worldwide each year. Using cameras and sensors to create dynamic traffic control systems instead of relying on fixed traffic light cycles can reduce energy consumption, wasted time, and mortality.

Besides transportation, buildings also use large quantities of energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and other operations, accounting for as much as 42 percent of global energy consumption. More efficient building design would reduce the amount of energy needed to maintain comfortable temperatures throughout the year. Dynamic systems can also adjust temperature and lighting to changes in occupancy, expending energy only when it benefits a building’s residents. Smart electricity meters would also provide residents with detailed information on consumption patterns and recommend ways to cut costs. Meters installed in the Empire State Building measure energy use for each of 100 tenants, and slashed energy costs by 38 percent, saving $4.4 million each year.

To help cities fully realize the gains from efficient resource management, West makes several recommendations. City agencies should join together to buy 5G technologies at high volumes and low costs. The combined purchasing power of cities also allows them to push for greater interoperability and innovation. To pave the way for the rollout of 5G, governments must allocate enough wireless spectrum to satisfy the demand of new technologies, and develop international standards for which frequencies will carry 5G signals. Most importantly, the integration with critical infrastructure means that these technologies must be secured against hackers. By taking these intermediate steps, cities can use 5G technologies to improve their environmental quality, save energy, and cut costs at the same time.

Read the entire paper, titled “Achieving sustainability in a 5G world”, here.


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