Bristol could be about to become one of the most important ‘Internet of Things’ test beds in the world, assisting international cities in their quest to become smarter.

The UK city announced a partnership with networking company NEC yesterday. This unofficial contract will see the firm assist Bristol's council and university develop a bespoke software-defined network to connect every aspect of the city’s infrastructure in the future.

Banksy, Shaun the sheep and Ribena have become Bristol's big names - but its operating system could be its biggest calling card to date credit: Aardman

By summer this year, it will begin gathering city data in a centralised platform that third parties can access to create better services, and apps, for citizens.

The software-defined network, the first of its kind in a smart city, is being engineered by a team of University of Bristol’s researchers and led by high performance networks professor, Dimitria Simeonidou.

Crucially, as it is software-defined (as opposed to traditional networking methods), the network engineers can slice up bandwidth capacity dependant on a service (like connected buses for example) or an app developer’s needs. This ensures there will be enough bandwidth to serve such a digital infrastructure.

Additionally, the city will be the only “openly programmable” city in the world, which means its infrastructure is technologically agnostic. This is crucial to avoid complexity as its mesh network grows and manufacturers and app developers start to build devices and applications on Bristol’s soon-to-be open data platform. It also means that the network will be capable of handling the futuristic-sounding 10G, when it arrives in the UK.

Without an open standard framework, smart objects, like streetlamps, would not be interoperable with other devices, rendering any efforts to become a smart city futile. 

The project, titled Bristol is Open, has sparked interest already from the largest city in South Central China, Guangzhou. The Chinese authorities will use Bristol’s research and some if its network and high powered computer capacity to begin testing its own Internet of Things type infrastructure, the council announced during the launch in the city centre yesterday.

Cities like Guangzhou, or even Hong Kong and New York, will be able to effectively simulate their own network traffic on Bristol’s network. This means engineers can help international authorities predict the capacity they will need to connect their metropolis, Simeonidou said.

This node emulation “is as close to real as is imaginably possible,” she added.

While the fastest connection speeds a consumer could buy in the UK is around 150 megabytes, Bristol will be able to offer 30GB of speed to developers keen to build apps to make the city more sustainable.

The speeds are so fast that if Bristol is Open was not purely a research product, its network would be shut down due to anti-competition laws protecting Virgin or BT, for example.

In the midst of this cutting-edge technology, the smart city is being deployed to better serve its citizens, who are at the heart of the initiative, Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol is Open, said.  

“We’re not trying to make smart cities. Smart is a technology, but lives are more important.”

For example, the council hopes that eventually, data analysis of traffic sensors and wifi usage will help ease congestion on Bristol’s roads.

The network is currently being rolled out and tested. The next phase of the Bristol is Open project will be the collection, storage and analysis of the city's data which is due to take place in this summer. The council and university hope that it will be able to collect heterogeneous data in one platform that Bristolians, and businesses, will be able to access to create apps and services.

As the data will be owned by the council, it will work with the university and the EU commission to set strict guidelines for data collection policies on Bristol citizens, it told Techworld.

Features of Bristol’s smart city

- A data dome, which functions as Bristol’s planetarium, is being connected the Bristol University’s HPC so analysts and companies using the city data can visualise it in 3D.

- Over 1000 smart lamps will be installed by Silver Springs as a canopy network across the city.

- Bristol was one of the winners of the government’s driverless car trial competition. It is currently testing a driverless Bobcat on its roads. 

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