Governments worry routinely about how best to plan their budgets so that money goes where citizens and businesses need it most. When building out digital infrastructure for advanced smart city connectivity, they should know they have enthusiastic backing from a key constituency: public transport users.

93% of respondents in our recent Connectivity outlook report said they were in favour of government spending on reliable wireless and fibre networks for transport. Just under 90% said they would support their city investing in a 5G network. A clear sign people want to be connected not only while in transit but everywhere throughout their cities. Further supported by the overwhelming belief (91%) that all world-class cities should have seamless mobile coverage above and below ground.

What do people want to do once connected in a transit environment? The answer depends on who you ask.

Nearly half of all commuters said they wanted to stream video, although younger respondents were keener to perform complex tasks or game on the go. 45% want to maintain meaningful connections with loved ones while on the move and almost 70% of all working respondents (and even more among those aged 18 to 39) want sufficiently high-quality connectivity to take video calls with their teams while in transit.

For public transport authorities, connectivity opens the door to applications which enhance the rider experience, improve public safety and optimise vehicle maintenance. Some are piloting artificial intelligence (AI) engines to advise commuters about route delays. Others are setting up smart camera systems with edge computing for real-time image analytics and installing sensors in train doors to detect potential failures long before they take a car out of service.

All these applications require investment, both the upfront infrastructure cost and the cost of deploying the technology. The genuine challenge for those with smart city ambitions is understanding how to create networks which support their needs now, but can also evolve to tackle future demands.

What comes first, the network or the apps?

Different applications require different connectivity, and building a network for any one specific use case could easily become a costly barrier to deploying other applications down the road. With technologies such as 5G, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) still in their relative infancy, it’s impossible to know what all their potential future use cases might be.

That means the smart and future-proof approach is to build a network platform that can evolve to support any array of applications. That’s exactly what’s being done in BAI’s project with Transport for London (TfL) and, more holistically, by officials in the UK city of Sunderland, in partnership with BAI.

BAI’s 20-year concession with TfL to deliver uninterrupted 4G and 5G mobile coverage across the London Underground requires the rollout of infrastructure throughout 137 stations, platforms and 400kms tunnel pairs. This will create a backbone of digital infrastructure that couples high-speed fibre connectivity with the potential to upgrade to high-speed 5G coverage. This is the foundation upon which London can build rich ecosystems of digital innovation, expanding connectivity to tens-of-thousands of street level assets and above ground premises.

Sunderland is also currently deploying a base layer of 5G connectivity, which will be complemented by other networking technologies to enable transformative digital services. Planned applications include self-driving vehicle trials, digital education in local schools and assistive technologies to support independent living for some of the city’s most vulnerable people. With a flexible design that can support additional future use cases, the Sunderland network is poised to make the city a digitally enabled, smart-city leader in the UK.

The right model makes the investment sustainable

Ultimately, no single kind of connectivity will answer every need, so a proper platform will include 5G cellular, Wi-Fi and even lower-frequency networks for longer-distance transmissions. Building these networks involves balancing the diverse needs of many stakeholders and requires long-term commitments. While MNOs might traditionally have expected to lead these developments, they’re already managing high capital costs and have to think more about near-term profitability to sustain their businesses.

That makes public-private partnerships a more effective model. Involving municipalities, transport authorities, MNOs and other stakeholders who can provide key technology and expertise in areas including fibre, AI, smart cameras and other IoT devices. The key is for someone to bring all the parties together. Systems integrators are often called on to play this role, though they aren’t able to build, maintain or operate the network itself. A neutral host like BAI can provide the full set of services and help shift the public investment from an upfront capex-heavy framework to a more sustainable opex-focused one.

Now is the time for connectivity investment

Transport authorities need to be plugged into the broader smart city conversations to serve their riders and bring their cities into the future. With routes and infrastructure that pass through a city’s most densely populated areas, they are ideally positioned to form the backbone of an integrated, citywide network. Fibre deployed through a public transport system can easily be brought up to street level through bus shelters, light poles, venues and other existing infrastructure to support small cells and a wide range of smart city applications.

As this year’s Connectivity outlook report shows, public support is strong for these kinds of developments. Now it is the time for transport authorities to partner with governments, MNOs and neutral hosts to make them happen.

To learn more about how connectivity in public transport is evolving, download our 2021 Connectivity Outlook report: Smarter transport, smarter communities. And look for the rest of our blog series, which inspects some implications for transport authorities and riders.