Verizon: Smart cities should be about enabling apps and improving lives, not just technology

The hotel will consist of 1,054 guestrooms in two towers. The property will be located across the street from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Boston's Vision Zero concept focuses the city’s resources on strategies to eliminate serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030, and presents a test bed for Verizon to deploy supporting technology.

BOSTON—Verizon’s move to wire up the city of Boston with fiber—one that will serve not only Fios and its wireless networks but also smart-city applications—is based not just on the technology nuances, but on how to solve real problems.

Under the terms of the agreement with the city of Boston, Verizon's Fios build in Boston is based on a holistic approach that will address other needs, including its ongoing 4G LTE wireless rollout and smart-city applications such as traffic light management and reducing traffic fatalities.

Boston, along with other cities like New York, have created a Vision Zero concept that focuses the city’s resources on strategies to eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030.

Speaking at the TIA’s event here, "Setting the Stage for Urban Innovation with 5G Networks", Steve Smiley, executive director of Smart Communities at Verizon, said cities should take a targeted technology approach to achieve their goals.

RELATED: Verizon's Boston FiOS rollout focuses on community, holistic use strategy

“Vision Zero and what we’re doing here is part of a learning process,” Smiley said. “You would use a sample size because there’s no reason to deploy that technology at every intersection and if you get a large enough sample size you’ll learn the benefits.”

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO for the City of Boston, said that what is compelling about its partnership with Verizon is that it is centered on providing solutions for its residents and businesses.

On one hand, the partnership will give residents, particularly those who could not previously get access, more high-speed broadband service choices.

“I want to see us moving toward the future where high-speed connectivity, is ubiquitous,” Franklin-Hodge said. “This means that not just that somebody can get it, but that everybody can get it and the technology being deployed can help close those gaps.”

Additionally, the smart-city applications are less about technology and more focused on solving issues like residential traffic management.

Franklin-Hodge said that Boston would like to hear from other service providers and other cities to see what other applications are emerging to improve daily life.

“We’re seeing these kinds of partnerships crop up in cities around the country and around the world,” Franklin-Hodges said. “In two years, I’d like to turn to Verizon or another company in this space and they say 'we did this thing in Columbus, Ohio and we achieved this goal,' but the goal is a human goal not a technology goal.”

Applications are key

While the smart city concept is certainly tantalizing for its advertised capabilities, what applications will it enable?  

Franklin-Hodges said that in building a smart city, the issues aren’t always about technology.

“The mistake some companies in this space some companies make is to assume that the problems are technology problems,” Franklin-Hodges said. “There are some hard technology problems, but more often than not the application and the last mile between the technology and the humans is the vast bulk of the work has to be done.”

Boston uses big data to manage city services like city trash collection in public parks and other associated spaces, for example.

The city has established a partnership with BigBelly Solar, a provider of self-powered waste management and recycling solutions. BigBelly’s system incorporates a CLEAN Management Console, which delivers actionable data from a city or enterprise site's customized configuration of BigBelly and SmartBelly stations.

“It’s about rethinking how the public works department changes their operational model because of these cans. Do we have to think about do we equip each of our trucks with a smart phone, do we do dynamic routing of those vehicles and how do we think about scheduling?,” Franklin-Hodges said. “There’s a whole set of issues that flows from having that technology that stands in the distance between the functional piece and the outcome we’re trying to achieve.”

Another potential app city could enable via technology is enhancing public safety first responder communications during disasters like a fire. A city could install small base stations inside first responder vehicles, enabling police and fire to communicate if existing wireless facilities are damaged.

“If you install a base station in a public safety vehicle, which is stopped near a burning building you can’t depend on the DAS system because it’s burning,” said Rajesh Mishra, founder and CTO of Parallel Wireless. “This base station is in the car, lights up, and because it’s close to your phone you would always have strong coverage.”

Sustaining flexible permitting, ROW processes

One of the chief concerns for Boston and other cities is how it deals with granting access to rights of way (ROW) to communications providers along city streets and existing electric utility poles to install fiber or small cells.

At its April monthly meeting, the FCC’s proposed reforms to accelerate deployment of next-generation networks and services by removing barriers to infrastructure investment at the federal, state and local level.

The commission asked for comment on using the FCC’s preemption authority to prohibit the enforcement of state and local laws that would pose barriers to broadband deployment, including input on when service providers have to obtain FCC permission to alter or discontinue a service.

A chief concern Boston has is that the FCC’s proposed rules could effectively leave municipalities without a say in the ROW and permitting process.

“What is happening is certain parts of the industry have decided that, especially in this regulatory environment, they can just bulldoze through the graveyard and not have to have the conversations that we are having in Boston to establish a framework for investment that’s respectful of communities,” Franklin-Hodge said. “You’re seeing action at the FCC to strip municipalities of the public right of way.”

Franklin-Hodge added that service providers that don’t engage with the communities where they want to expand their wireless and wireline infrastructure will face protest from city leaders and residents alike.

“If people start getting the sense that the communications industry is taking over their public space, you’ll see a backlash that will set back all of this work by at least another four or five years,” Franklin-Hodge said. “My plea to the industry is to come and talk to us, and it will take time to develop the models, but when we do it’s going to make everyone’s lives easier.”

Smiley agreed and added that Verizon is in discussions with other cities about the best way to work with one another.

“We’re all trying to run a business, but we need to do it responsibly,” Smiley said. “It comes down to how do we do that and understand it and how we communicate to figure out what we’re trying to accomplish.”