The Pushback Against Smart Cities

If you follow the smart city movement in the US you’ll quickly see that Kansas City, Missouri touts itself as the nation’s smartest city. The smart city movement got an early launch there when the City was announced as the first major market for Google Fiber. That gigabit fiber network attracted numerous small tech start-ups and the City also embraced the idea of being a technology leader.

The city’s primary smart city venture so far has been to bring smart city technology to a 54-block area in downtown. But this area only covers about 1% of the total area of the City. The City is currently contemplating expanding the smart city into the neglected east side neighborhoods near downtown. This is an area with boarded up storefronts and vacant lots, and the hope is that investing in smart city will bring a boost to this area as a way to kick-start economic development.

So far the primary smart city applications include smart parking, smart intersections, smart water meters and smart streetlights. The city also installed video surveillance cameras along the 2.2-mile downtown corridor.  The existing deployment also includes public WiFi provided through 25 kiosks placed throughout the smart city neighborhood. As of last fall there had been a reported 2.7 million log-ins to the WiFi network.

In the east side expansion WiFi will take on a more significant role since it’s estimated that only 40% of the residents in that area have home broadband today – far below the national average of 85%. The city is also looking to implement a rapid transit bus line into the east side as part of the smart grid expansion.

The new expansion into the east side is slated to have more surveillance including new features like gun shot detectors. There has been public fear voiced that this system can be used to disadvantage the largely minority population of the area.

The biggest hurdle to an expanded smart city services is money. The initial deployment was done through a public-private partnership. The city contributed $3.7 million, which it largely borrowed. Sprint, which manages the WiFi network contributed about $7 million and Cisco invested $5 million. The cost to expand the smart city everywhere has been estimated to cost half a billion.

It is the public-private partnerships that bring a troublesome aspect to the smart city concept. It’s been reported that Sprint collects data from those who log in to the free WiFi network – information like home zip code and results of Internet searches. It’s also been reported that Sprint can track people who have once subscribed to the service, even if they don’t log in. Sprint won’t say how it collects and uses customer data – but as we are learning throughout the tech world, it is the monetization of customer data that fuels many ISPs and online services.

There is also growing public concern about surveillance cameras. It’s starting to become clear that Americans don’t want to be tracked by cameras, especially now with the advent of decent facial recognition technology. We saw Seattle have to tear down a similar surveillance network before it ever went into service. We’re seeing huge pushback in Toronto about a proposed smart city network that includes surveillance.

We only have to look at China to see an extreme example of the misuse of this technology. The country is installing surveillance in public places and in retail areas and tracks where people are and what they do. China has carried this to such an extreme that they are in the process of implementing a system that calculates a ‘citizen score’ for every person. The country goes so far as to notify employers of even minor infractions of employees like jaywalking.

It’s going to be an uphill battle, perhaps one that never can be won for US cities to implement facial recognition tracking. People don’t want the government to be tracking where they are and what they do every time they go out into public. The problem is magnified many times when private companies become part of the equation. As much as the people in Kansas City might not fully trust the City, they have far less reason to trust an ISP like Sprint. Yet the smart city networks are so expensive it’s hard to see them being built without private money – and those private partners want a chance to get a return on their investment.

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.