NEC shows off SDN focus in UK smart city project

by Caroline Gabriel, Research Director

Japan's NEC is harnessing two key carrier network trends - software defined networking (SDN) and densification - to attempt a significant comeback in the mobile space. This will involve targeting non-traditional operators as well as conventional cellcos, and all these strategies are showcased in a new smart city project announced with Bristol, UK.

Having been squeezed out of the RAN market in the 3G era (though it remains a powerhouse in backhaul), NEC has been assembling a new platform with which to take on Ericsson once again. This is heavily geared to SDN, and the company is integrating its Netcracker OSS/BSS subsidiary, which has been virtualizing its platform aggressively, into the main operations, reflecting the convergence of hardware and software.

These elements will be important to the SDN-based network the vendor will create for Bristol, which will be able to support services for businesses, residents and the local universities. The groundwork for the SDN platform was done at the University of Bristol and that will be incorporated into the real world network deployed by NEC, along with the vendor's own virtualization technologies. NEC will virtualize many of the functions of a network whose physical layer will rely on a combination of fiber, wireless and mesh, tied together by IoT big data analytics tools.

The overall project is called 'Bristol is Open', and is a joint venture between the city authority and the university, with the bold goal of being the "world's first open programmable city". Initial applications will be for the direct benefit of these two partners - for instant, more efficient traffic management to ease congestion in the city, and services for academics. However, there is the potential to expand the uses of the network to support the wide community and commercial partners and there is already a long list of participants including the BBC, national and European government agencies, and academic institutions.

Any city project, however 'smart', that is led by a local council, brings back memories of previous phases such as muni WiFi, which experienced high levels of failure, often because there was no clear business model.

By including SDN in the mix, and partnering with a range of expert companies, the new wave of connected city initiatives hopes to create platforms that are flexible enough to keep costs under control and to support a wide variety of current and future services. These could generate revenue, increase cost efficiencies or deliver social and economic benefits in order to, for instance, attract new businesses, or reduce crime.

There will also be a greater opportunity to harness a wide variety of data than with earlier technology platforms. The project plans to tap into data from sensors covering as many aspects of city life as possible, including energy, air quality and traffic.

The council said the SDN-based infrastructure would have an immediate impact in the area of transport management, reducing bottlenecks and managing public transport and car traffic more dynamically. It has already opened up almost 200 of the city's data sets related to traffic flows, energy usage, crime and health trends to help shape new services.

Extensions of the platform envisaged by NEC include low latency connectivity for many IoT (internet of things) purposes, including driverless cars in future, as well as smart health services; coupled with high bandwidth connections for applications which demand that, such as HDTV public broadcasts or ultra-fast information exchange between universities. According to Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol is Open, the network will also result in a "city-scale lab" in which global hi-tech companies, start-ups and community organizations will be able to test out their ideas and applications.

Dejan Bojic, director of strategy and solutions at NEC EMEA, commented in a statement: "This is a truly groundbreaking smart city project. It will use the latest NEC SDN-enabled network technologies - which will operate with Bristol Is Open's SDN platform, developed by the University of Bristol - to create an open, dynamic, virtualized network to serve each traffic type according to its quality of service priorities and real time levels of demand over multicarrier WiFi, LTE, millimeter wave and optical channels."

If the city center trial is successful, it could be extended to surrounding areas such as the Bristol suburbs, Bath and nearby counties. The project is due to go live this spring, and will run for at least the five years.

There are other UK smart city projects in the works, including a series of roll-outs planned by infrastructure owner Arqiva and IoT network specialist Sigfox. Their first location to go live was the London borough of Greenwich, which will stage a driverless car trial.

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