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Teach your children – and your research scientists

As a communications company, our technology reaches into every sector of industry and every walk of life. It also stays with you throughout your life. Take the education sector as an example.

While good old-fashioned textbooks still have a role to play in the classroom, and expert research papers will of course remain important sources of learning in higher education, there is no doubt that the internet now trumps everything and is the most important education tool in the world.

Whether for discovering or documenting knowledge, the internet can provide equal and inclusive access to information. However, the UK’s digital divide means that not all internet access is created equally. In the early learning years – good quality access needs to be more widely available. Higher up the education ladder, higher speeds, greater bandwidth and more data capacity are required.

So, whether we are talking about doctorate research in universities, or interactive teaching in primary schools, the internet is now the key to lifelong learning; and the connectivity we provide is fundamental to its availability and to its efficiency.

At Neos Networks we are deeply involved in projects that reflect that importance of those lifelong connections through education. Take the work we have been doing in Aberdeenshire as an example. Working in partnership with the City and regional councils, the Scottish Government and local health authorities, we have been creating a digital network to provide high quality internet access across the greater Aberdeen region.

In the last two years, we have delivered some 275km of Dark Fibre network, covering five major locations across Aberdeenshire. The project is already delivering fibre connectivity and digital services to more than 192 public sector sites across the region, including its schools, colleges and libraries. Smart city projects like this not only help to improve local services they also help to address the digital divide, creating better shared community internet resources. And, in the case of Aberdeen, Neos Networks has brought high speed internet access within reach of some 44,000 homes.

Of course, while the physical infrastructure is the starting point of any smart city project and its reach into education, in Aberdeen we took the learning aspect a step further. Throughout the two years of the project, we have been delivering careers presentations across the city’s schools and colleges and have also provided work placement opportunities for the city’s college students. What’s more, we have created several full time and foundational apprenticeships.

The idea has been to highlight careers opportunities within the IT sector that might otherwise have been missed and help build a local workforce adept in managing and maintaining the smart city fibre network.

As a company, we also play a key role in the UK’s higher education and research sector. Across these fields, the sheer volume of data being produced or accessed within its institutions, coupled with the requirement for super-fast cloud-based data processing and a growing thirst for UHD video, are combining to drive demand for near limitless network capacity and ever higher speeds.

For these applications, public networks are unlikely to provide the dedication and bandwidth required so private networks come to the fore. In the UK, its universities, colleges and major research establishments rely on the private Janet network provided by Jisc – a membership organisation delivering shared digital infrastructure and services across higher education, further education, research, and the wider public sector

During the last year, we have been working with Jisc on a major upgrade programme across its regional networks. A great example of this is in the North-West of England, where a new Dark Fibre network will come on-stream later this year delivering ten-fold increases in speed and providing connectivity speeds of up to 100Gbps. Large universities in Manchester, Liverpool, and Lancaster, as well as important research facilities such as the Jodrell Bank Observatory, are all connected to Jisc in the North-West.

To get a better understanding of the staggering amount of data involved, it’s worth adding that the Science & Technology Facilities Council has its key laboratory in Daresbury connected to the network. This laboratory is the central facility handling all the investigative data into dark matter arriving in the UK from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Jisc’s Janet network connects the UK via a national backbone and 15 regional infrastructures, and we’ve been working with them to upgrade many of the regional loops. Most recently we have built a new Dark Fibre network for colleges, universities and research institutions in Northern Ireland and have linked that to the national backbone via two separate submarine cables coming ashore in Southport and Glasgow.

Effectively, with a good internet connection you can today access the sum of all human knowledge and information. In education terms it is used to discover, document, advance and share knowledge – whether for first learnings, GSCE studies or PHD research. At Neos Networks – we can be rightly proud that we are providing the vital connections that are helping to facilitate and empower lifelong learning.

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Green transport in smart cities: the path ahead and how to get there

We spoke to Adam Wears, Senior Content Specialist at Juniper Research.  

When questioned about the purpose of smart cities, there was a resounding response: they help to mitigate human impact by addressing environmental issues. But how do they achieve this? There are two clearly identified routes in the transport sector; through the collection of key data and analytics, or by reducing our carbon footprints.

In line with this, sustainability will also sit at the heart of most smart city plans, whether this comes in the form of transport, energy use or environmental monitoring. And while there are some fundamental infrastructure challenges to overcome, the potential of green transport in smart cities is undeniable.

Follow the green brick road

Autonomous vehicles steal all the headlines when it comes to the future of transport, whether it’s driverless buses in China or Apple entering the driverless car market. But that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Adam Wears, Research Analyst at Juniper Research believes: “It really comes down to mass transport and smart traffic management. They are aligned to the same goal, which is to reduce congestion and reduce emissions, but they do this in two similar, but distinct ways.

He continues, “In terms of mass transport it's about making cities’ transport networks work more efficiently. This not only reduces the number of commuters in cars, but links transport up so that you don't need to drive. It gets people moving on more sustainable environmentally friendly forms of public transport. It's about making these transports methods synchronise in such a way that cars are required less.

“Traffic management systems work in a different way. They cause traffic signals to respond to real-time conditions to enable a smoother flow. A benefit of this is reducing the number of times cars stop during a journey. You don't want a car idling for minutes at a time: this produces massive amounts of carbon emissions unnecessarily.”

Of course, to understand demand, you need data, huge amounts of data.

Wears continues: “Systems such as mass smart traffic management rely on data to educate us on things like supply and demand, traffic times and peak times. They need all this data to function. We find that the cities that are best at tackling this challenge are the cities that have implemented open data.”

But to carry these extensive levels of data, cities need robust, low-latency networks, running throughout them. That’s where network providers come in. Over the last few years, they’ve been investing heavily in fibre builds in cities across the UK to be able to support this move to a more digital future.

Planning for a new era in transport

If people are to use new modes of transport – or at least fewer cars – in smart cities, it follows that transport planning on the ground will also to change.

Wears outlines some of the possibilities: “If you deploy mass transport successfully and you reduce the number of cars operating in cities, eventually you’re going to end up with a surplus of car parking facilities. The bigger question therefore would be, how can we better use those spaces to aid things like public transport?”

“It's the same with street furniture. When you're walking down the street, you might see more e-scooter and e-bike stands. These are everywhere in London. The hope is that eventually, as these initiatives roll out, you're going to see more street furniture that is designed to support a sustainable future.”

There is also constant innovation happening around roads themselves. In the future, roads will be able to charge vehicles or do the opposite and generate energy from cars moving over them. Other possibilities include roads which warn of accidents, weigh goods vehicles and automatically issue speeding fines when they detect offences.

Of course, all these innovations are underpinned by the transmission of data, likely supported by 5G networks requiring stable core connectivity. Investing in solid digital infrastructure can pave the way for some truly fascinating smart city applications in transport.

The roadblocks

Of course, upgrading something as fundamental as a whole city’s core connectivity requires significant investment. But as Wears points out, there are all kinds of reasons why cities have to do this, going far beyond transport.

“It's not just about focusing on mobility, but bringing in all the diverse areas of the smart city, from things like smart grid, to smart lighting, to smart mobility and smart traffic management. It’s a real holistic process that must be built from the bottom up, with core connectivity infrastructure as the foundations of any smart city.

Changing minds

However, before any ground is broken on digital infrastructure investments, both stakeholders and citizens will need to be convinced of the way forward for transport.

Wears says: “It's going to require a complete mindset change. Even at the city level, it's going to be about how we get these agreements in place. How do we get transport operators on board with these initiatives? Because these systems need to work for every stakeholder in the process.”

“Eventually, we will have to conclude that any inconvenience is worth it, that it’s a price we have to pay to improve the planet, to improve our cities, to improve the direct health consequences of congestion and emissions on people.”

Neos Networks has helped a number of cities to become truly smart, supporting local authorities across the nation including Oxfordshire, Aberdeenshire and Perth and Kinross councils.

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What role does data play in the roll-out of smart cities?

We spoke to Daniel Clarke, Strategy Partnerships Manager at Connecting Cambridgeshire. Daniel developed the Smart Cambridge programme which included the development of a city data platform and deployment of sensors.

Smart cities promise to bring some truly remarkable opportunities to citizens across the UK. But to make a city truly smart, data must play a prevalent part. Sensors collect it, insights are gained from it and, ultimately, improvements to everyday lives come from it.

As AI comes of age and begins to make decision making and routine smart city management more efficient, data will become even more crucial.

But what part does data play in today’s smart cities and how can we make this easier access to information enrich our day-to-day (and business) lives?

The status quo

At this relatively early stage of smart city implementation in our societies, data is enabling local authorities to better understand the capabilities and applications of smart technology.

“Our primary role has been looking at how we can collect better, more granular data across the city.” says Daniel Clarke. “We’ve been examining how we can understand people's movements, whether that's transport movement, pedestrian movement or cycle movements. We’ve also been striving to gain a better understanding of energy usage and how power grids are performing.

“There's a whole range of data that we collect.” Clarke continues. “We're looking at things like real-time bus and train data. We also benefit from electric scooters and electric bikes, so we’re collecting that data too. We utilise all of this data to  to further develop our city, while enhancing the lives of its residents.”

In addition to the areas outlined above, Cambridgeshire are also now benefitting from live bus tracking for passengers, using sensors in bins to prompt waste collection and reducing congestion through traffic flow sensors – all of which are driving data-led improvements in the area.

Clarke elaborates on the benefits: “We’ve been using real-time transport data to build tools that make it easier for people to make sustainable travel choices around the city. For example, we built Motion Map to give residents better visibility of our transport system. It's about giving our people greater access to better information”.

Clarke continues: “We're beginning to look more and more at air quality data and how we can disseminate air quality data. We've also worked with a company called AppyParking, where we put parking data into their app to make sure that people can find parking whenever and wherever they need it.”

With innovations like these, it’s not just the amounts of data channelled that necessitate carrier-grade networks. The use of real-time data also dictates that low latency connections are a must.

Data that’s open for business

When we consider the prospects of smart cities in the UK, one greatly encouraging factor is that many local authorities and smart city organisations are committed to the concept of open data. Currently cities including London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham are leading the way.

From making citizens feel consulted, to accumulating greater quantities of data, and the potentially global sharing of ideas, this approach has many advantages for smart cities. It’s not difficult to see why Connecting Cambridge is employing a policy of open data.

Clarke outlines their set-up: “We make our data open through Cambridgeshire Insights, which is a data platform. It basically means that citizens are welcome to come and use our data, which they’re certainly taking advantage of. We also began to put that data into dashboards through tools like Power BI. This enables us to better visualise how data is used as a communication method.”

Making sense of the data noise

Collecting such vast quantities of data can potentially lead to a surplus of information, which could actually make interpretation and useful application more difficult. Connecting Cambridgeshire has recognised this as an issue and found a prestigious partner to help overcome it.

Clarke explains: “We've worked with the University of Cambridge to look at how we can better process and structure travel data, and how we can output that travel data into different digital tools. We’ve then worked with businesses in the area to understand what’s possible, where the commercial sector is going and how we can take our early stage pilots and trials and turn them into something more commercial.”

It’s absolutely vital that local authorities and smart city planners devise ways to package data to make it accessible to all and actionable. Clarke goes on to say: “The data gatekeepers must always have commercial value in their thoughts. Without any intrinsic commercial worth, a dataset becomes a fruitless endeavour”.

Another difficulty is the variety of systems used to collect information. To achieve a satisfactory degree of efficiency, solutions to this problem must be found.

Clarke continues: “One of the issues that we've come across is that it’s still quite a fragmented market. For example, if we put in a sensor to measure traffic movement, that sensor will come with a data platform and an air quality sensor will come with a separate data platform. This means that we end up with lots of sensors and lots of platforms. What we need is a centralised system to combine and analyse information more easily”.

“Over the last few years, we've started to move towards this ambition, building a data platform with the University of Cambridge at smartcambridge.org. This has allowed us to move data away from legacy systems, instead compiling it in one place.”

Levelling infrastructure up to deliver data

Many smart city technologies – particularly Internet of Things-powered innovations require 5G networks, which is one of the reasons more emphasis is being placed on smart cities, as 5G connectivity becomes a reality. However, in turn, 5G networks need far-reaching, reliable, high-speed fibre infrastructure to be able to power them.

Clarke spells this out: “I think fibre is the foundation on which smart cities are built. It is critical to their success. Simply, it supports everything from mobile connectivity to business processes”.

“As with everything in the smart cities domain, in order for our dreams to become a reality, we need to be much more collaborative in our approach both to planning fibre and ensuring that this fibre is going to the right places. Over the years, we’ve built a very collaborative relationship with fibre providers. As cities, we can enable the fibre footprint by doing things like putting ducting into all of our infrastructure schemes. To help increase fibre footprints, we support things like wayleaves, permits and licensing, to try and remove some of the barriers that fibre providers face when they come into a city.”

For local authorities to deliver on their smart cities promises, providing seamless, behind-the-scenes solutions to everyday living, they will need to ease the way for fibre providers, just as Cambridge has done.

One thing is for certain, data will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of smart cities. Operations will only become seamless when the underlying core connectivity is in place that will enable high-speed connections, capable of transmitting these previously outlined large volumes of data. A crucial first step to ensure ambitious smart cities plans succeed, is to ensure high-performance infrastructure is in place to handle massive – and constantly growing – quantities of data.

Neos Networks has helped a number of cities to become truly smart, supporting local authorities across the nation including Oxfordshire, Aberdeenshire and Perth and Kinross councils.

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