Smart Cities and Fiber

I’ve noticed that a lot more cities are talking about becoming ‘smart cities.’ Only a few years ago this was something that only NFL cities talked about, but now I see it as a goal for much smaller cities. ‘Smart city’ is an interesting concept. If you listen to the various vendors pushing the idea this means investing in massive amounts of sensors and the computing power to make sense of them. But there are also a lot of lower-tech ideas that fit under this same umbrella.

I’ve had discussion with folks at cities who think that they need fiber in order to have a smart city. Nobody is a bigger proponent of fiber than I am, but fiber is not necessarily needed for many of the concepts that are part of this high-tech vision.

Having smarter traffic flow is generally at the top of everybody’s list. It’s common sense that having vehicles needlessly waiting for lights wastes fuel and wastes time. Smarter traffic lights in cities would improve the quality of life and the economy. A decade ago a lot of cities built fiber networks just to provide a real-time connection to each traffic signal. Those fiber networks allowed the city to change signal timing in reaction to emergencies and similar events, but the whole effort is largely still manual.

But with AI starting to become a realistic technology it looks like truly smart traffic lights are a possibility in the near future. A smart traffic system could change lights on the fly in response to real-life traffic to reduce the average time that vehicles wait for a green light. But the question that must be asked is if this really requires fiber? A decade ago it did. Fiber was needed just to provide the traffic cameras needed to allow somebody at traffic headquarters to eyeball the situation at a given intersection.

But we are now seeing a revolution in sensing devices. We are not too many years removed from the big push to do all heavy-computing in the cloud. A decade ago the vision was that a smart traffic light system would rely on cloud computing power. But faster computers have now reversed that trend and today it makes more sense to put smart computers at the edge of network. In the case of traffic lights, smart computers at the edge reduces the need for bandwidth. Sensors at an intersection no longer need to broadcast non-stop and only need to relay information back to the central core when there is some reason to do so.

For example, one of the uses of a smart traffic system is to identify problem intersections. Sensors can be programmed to record every instance when somebody runs a red light or even a late yellow light and this can alert authorities to problems long before a tragic accident. But these sensors only need to send data when there is an actionable event, and even that doesn’t require a gigantic burst of data.

The same goes for smart traffic control. The brains in the device at an intersection can decide to allow for a longer green for a turn lane if there are more cars than normal waiting to turn. That doesn’t need a big continuous bandwidth connection. The city will want to gather data from intersections to know what the devices are doing, but with smart edge devices a wireless connection provides adequate broadband and a lower cost solution for data gathering.

This same trend is happening with other kinds of sensors. Sensors that listen for gunshots, smart grid sensors used to monitor water and electric networks, and smart sensors used to provide smarter lighting all can be done wirelessly and do not need a fiber connection.

The real purpose behind the concept of a smart city is to provide better government service to constituents. Many of the best ideas out there don’t involve much bandwidth at all. For example, I recently watched a demo of a system in a mid-western city that allows citizens to see, in real time, the location on a map all of the snow plows and trash trucks operating in the city – much like is done when you can see a Lyft ride coming to pick you up. This will drastically cut down on calls during snowstorms since citizens can see a plow making its way towards their street. (And watching the plow inch towards you on a snowy day is good entertainment!)

Cities are undertaking all sorts of other initiatives to improve quality of life. I see cities working on computer systems that put all government forms and processes online, making it easier to get a permit or to report a problem to the city. Cities are reducing pollution by passing ordinances that promote roof-top gardens, that require that new high-rises that are energy self-sufficient and that promote safe bicycling.

There are still big corporations out pitching the expensive smart city vision. But there are now smaller boutique smart city vendors that working towards more affordable and reasonably-priced sensors to spread around a city.

Like anyone who lives in a city I would love to see my city implement smart city ideas that improve the quality of life. But as much as I am a fiber-proponent, I am finding it hard to make a case that a lot of urban fiber is needed to implement the best smart-city ideas.

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