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Geoff Mulligan: A ‘Dumb’ Way to Build Smart Cities

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In every corner of the country and around the world, leaders are trying to make their cities “smarter.” These projects are often in response to specific and on-going demands — such as parking, overcrowding, noise, and pollution — while others have started to address broader goals — such as reduction of energy consumption, improvement of traffic flow, or sustainability. But as is often the case with grand ideas, many are taking the wrong approach. It’s simply impossible, in one sweep, to build a Smart City. Just as the internet and the web didn’t spring forth fully formed, as if from some “master plan,” Smart Cities must be built as organic, independent, and yet connected pieces. As Stewart Brand cogently argued, even buildings have to learn in steps.

A Smart City roadmap is invaluable, laying out a direction to help set expectations. However, it shouldn’t define specific cross-system technologies and implementation details, nor plan for all projects to launch or complete simultaneously. They must instead be created as separate solutions for each problem, then stitched together by open standards and open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and each built as an independent service. That’s how they must grow if we want them to succeed — learning by iteration.

Today’s problem

In the rush to “capture the market,” companies are selling “complete visions” — though incomplete solutions – of how their systems can solve the ills that plague the modern city. City planners, managers, and officials get sold the idea that these companies have some kind of silver bullet that, in a single solution, integrates all city functions and enhances their capabilities, thus making them work together efficiently. But this belies the true nature of the problem: none of us are smart enough to fully appreciate or understand the complexity of managing all the functions that go into making a city work. The sheer diversity of the systems ensures that no single technology can be applied as “the” solution. In addition, the timeframe for implementing these disparate programs can vary widely, meaning that technology selected at the start of one project will likely be obsolete by the start of another.

Worse yet, these companies are also selling and deploying products that are based on closed, proprietary systems. They include proprietary radios, single-purpose hardware, proprietary software and protocols, and closed web applications and portals. These designs constrain innovation and interfere with interoperability between newer and older systems, often saddling the new with the constraints of the past. This is like the Trojan Horse — a solution that requires all future systems to use these proprietary systems and thereby locking the city into that particular vendor for the rest of their days, limiting design and technology choices and stifling innovation and adoption of newer technology.

It’s not all gloom and doom. With the application of open systems and implementation of a service-oriented architecture, future technology can be built that’ll integrate more seamlessly with previous technology investments.

Choose a different path

We’ve learned from the lean-agile community to build success in small, incremental steps rather than one grand leap. But with the different needs, design patterns, and timeframes, how is it possible to accomplish building a Smart City in small steps? It’s done by leveraging the nature of the internet itself, complete with open standards and open APIs. By decoupling every system and eliminating hidden interfaces, we can relieve the pressures of time and technology interdependencies, thereby allowing greater innovation in each separate project while “future proofing” the design decisions.

We use different materials and architecture to construct buildings with differing purposes (hospitals vs. homes vs. high-rises), but there’s a consistency even within these varying buildings for standard electrical and plumbing connections. Smart City projects can adopt this same design pattern. This means that for a parking project, the city can pick the most appropriate communication technology but require that the system be built on open standard protocols that underlie the internet (for example, HTTP, IP, TCP, and MQTT), use data formats such as JSON or XML, and have open APIs.

Greater than the sum of the parts

Instead of a complete Smart City that’s decades in the making, city managers can instead look for “low-hanging fruit” or “greatest pain point” and more quickly build a point solution, knowing that it can simply be connected to any future systems in a scalable and secure manner. A smart parking system for city streets or a parking garage built using LoRa today can be connected to a city traffic management system built using NBIoT next year, as long as both use open APIs and avoid closed, proprietary solutions including “walled garden” cloud solutions.

The next city improvement project — a smart street light system, for example — might require a completely different communication technology from the previous parking system. Streetlights are up high and more distributed than parking meters or parking spaces in a garage. Streetlights have power, whereas a parking sensor will likely be battery-operated. These different requirements would necessitate the use of different communication technologies, but both systems can be interconnected through common protocols and APIs. Through open APIs, this interconnectivity doesn’t need to be designed in from the beginning but can be added after each of the separate systems is installed.

For example, the streetlight system that’s installed today could be connected to traffic flow sensors installed tomorrow. The two systems may use completely different communication technology and set of protocols. This new combination — streetlight and traffic flow sensors connected through open APIs — could offer an innovative solution for reducing streetlight energy usage by dimming lights when there are no cars, but increasing the brightness prior to the cars arrival based on messages from the traffic flow system.

The use and adherence to open APIs and microservices brings another benefit — decoupled velocity. This means that even concurrent projects can be built at different speeds and rolled out at different times and yet combined when each is completed and functional. As in the example above, the smart streetlight project might end up taking longer to deploy because of the sheer number of devices. Where as the traffic flow sensors might be installed sooner. Open APIs release each system from timing interdependencies and implementation speed.

Vendor lock-in and future-proofing

Another benefit of open standards and APIs is the elimination of vendor lock-in, which is when a vendor wins all future business because they alone are holding the keys to the design and the data. Vendor lock-in squelches innovation: you’re only as innovative as the vendor wants to be or lets you be. If a city needs a design or solution that isn’t in the vendor’s current portfolio, the city’s choices become wait, pay more to have the vendor add it to their roadmap, or go outside the ecosystem and use some sort of gateway (but gateways are evil, see below) to translate protocols and data and interconnect the systems.

Instead, open standards and APIs bring the ability to incorporate and evolve with newer technologies and systems. But, much like vendor lock-in, you can run afoul of technology lock-in. Imagine having built a Smart City project requiring the use of videotape and now not being able to adopt streaming technologies because they’re incompatible. Technology changes rapidly; in just a few years, we’ve moved from 2G to 3G and now to 5G in the cellular environment. By using open standards to decouple the higher-layer protocols from the lower layers, technology can evolve and systems using older tech can easily interconnect. In this way a system deployed using 4G today can interoperate with 5G systems tomorrow and 6G and 7G systems in a few years.

The underpinnings of innovation

Avoiding vendor and technology lock-in is critical to allow for innovation. Nothing will be more detrimental to a city’s infrastructure and future than to be bound to a vendor and have to ask for permission to enhance or extend the systems’ functionality. As new technology comes to the market and new services are brought out to solve other city issues, the ability to quickly test and connect them to existing solutions is the necessary for offering evolving solutions and bringing more opportunities for innovation and cost reductions. When you embark on your next project, ask your vendors — “do you use open standard protocols?” and “how are your APIs and data published?”

Avoid these traps — the ‘evil’ gateway and ‘private clouds’

One tool that many vendors attempt to leverage to show openness and interoperability is the “gateway.” They claim that they provide, or can build, a gateway to connect to other systems. Gateways are a never-ending trap on so many levels:

  • they’re a single point of failure;
  • they’re a single point of attack for hackers;
  • they require complex coordination between systems;
  • maintenance and updates are costly or non-existent;
  • updates need to be managed;
  • they add extra costs for hardware and power; and
  • they’re closed and proprietary.

The second trap is private clouds and walled gardens. The vendor will claim that they use “all of the open internet standards,” listing protocol after protocol, but they use these protocols only to send the data (your data) into a closed, proprietary cloud system — locking it away so that only they have the keys. This is akin to building a road that leads to a cul-de-sac, which is blocked by a locked gate that only lets traffic in. Then, new systems must be built to connect through this cloud, likely via closed and proprietary interfaces. In the end, only other systems in this closed ecosystem can be used for future projects, thereby limiting innovation and increasing time and costs. Sending data to the cloud isn’t a panacea, as many vendors would like to suggest.

Who owns the data — that is, your data

In Smart City projects the goals of improving city services or infrastructure are the leading driver for implementation but the greatest benefits will come from the availability of the data gathered from these projects and new systems. Unfortunately, many of the Smart City systems being proffered today lock away access to the data in walled gardens, as mentioned before. It’s imperative that the data is sent to city-owned and managed servers, or the city’s data lake or available without license through open APIs. Only in this way will the city and future Smart City projects be able to use and leverage the wealth of information and the underlying real value of these types of projects.

A related concern surrounding data ownership is the rights to the use and sale of the data created by the Smart City project — a valuable commodity. Throughout the life of the project it should be clear that the city owns all rights to the data. The vendor may not access, distribute, or sell any of the data whether in raw form or aggregated without the explicit permission of the city. Only in this way will you be able to protect the rights and privacy of the city and it’s citizens.

Choosing the right project

By adopting open standards and APIs, you’re now able to embark on a Smart City project without having to solve all other city projects at the same time or constrain them with the choices made today. But choosing the “right” project is important. In some cases, it’s prudent to choose a small, fast, low-cost project. This allows you to get your feet wet, test vendors, accomplish a project in a short time, and hopefully succeed; but if you fail, fail fast, learn, and move on. There sometimes is a problem with these projects though: they may have little impact and they may cause others to look upon them as “ho hum.”

An alternative is to choose a project that’s a large “pain point” for the city. By definition, these projects have great visibility and impact, but may have far greater risk and take much longer to complete. They don’t generally meet the rules for lean-agile, but the small “safe” projects may not show off the true benefits that a Smart City can bring. Solve this by using divide and conquer. Rather than implementing smart parking across the entire city, choose to focus on a particularly congested city section or single parking structure.

Building success

When a city is becoming smarter by investing in a Smart City project, use this checklist to evaluate the project:

  • Does it start small and scale well? This is better than a monolithic solution that requires a gigantic investment.
  • Is it locking the city into technologies, or, even worse, vendors? Does it exclude other vendors?
  • Is it open? What protocols are used? Are the APIs published and open?
  • Did the vendor mention or require (evil) gateways?
  • Does it solve a problem for the city quickly, even if it’s only a small problem?
  • What will the city be able to learn from taking on this project?
  • Who owns the data?

Through the strict application and requirement of openness, your Smart City project can be delivered in a way that’s quick, beneficial, evolvable, and scalable. Our cities can and will become smarter and better places to live through small steps and open standards — open APIs and microservices are the foundational stepping stones to that future.

Geoff Muilligan is IoT Practice Lead at Skylight Digital and CTO for IIoT at Jabil. Past founder and Chairman of LoRa and IPSO. Former White House Presidential Innovation  Fellow on IoT. Creator of 6lowpan. This article originally appeared on the author’s web site, and is reposted with permission.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

Geoff Muilligan is IoT Practice Lead at Skylight Digital and CTO for IIoT at Jabil. Past founder and Chairman of LoRa and IPSO. Former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow on IoT. Creator of 6lowpan.

Expert Opinion

Sen. Michael Bennet: Broadband Infrastructure Legislation Follows Colorado Model

Senate-passed legislation for broadband investment inspired by Colorado’s experience, says senator.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado

Washington may soon make the biggest broadband investment in U.S. history, and the first draft was written in Colorado.

Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a historic $65 billion for broadband. This section draws directly from the BRIDGE Act, the bill I wrote with Coloradans to reflect our state’s struggles and successes against the digital divide.

Long before the pandemic, broadband was a consistent source of frustration for people across our state. Parents on the Front Range, farmers on the Eastern Plains, and nurses on the Western Slope all told me the same thing: broadband was too slow or expensive to be of any practical use.

Too often, Washington’s answer was to shower the biggest telecom companies with billions in subsidies to build networks, usually in rural areas, that were outdated almost as soon as they were finished. At the same time, Washington had no good answer for working families, many in cities, who couldn’t afford existing broadband options.

As usual, Colorado didn’t wait on Washington to act. Cities created their own municipal networks, like Longmont’s NextLight, which PC Magazine named one of the fastest broadband providers in America. Electric coops like the Delta-Montrose and Yampa Valley Electric Associations deployed fiber-optic networks in rural communities at world-class speeds and prices. Through it all, the Colorado government demonstrated that it could get money out the door for broadband faster and more effectively than Washington.

With these lessons in mind, I wrote the BRIDGE Act with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio and Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King from Maine. Our bill became the model for the broadband provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now on the cusp of becoming law.

Based on the BRIDGE Act, the infrastructure bill gives the lion’s share of the broadband funding to states, not Washington. This is a sea change in policy, because it puts states and local leaders — not federal bureaucrats — in the driver’s seat. After all, they have the best understanding of needs on the ground and the greatest incentive to spend limited funds wisely.

Second, the bill more than quadruples the minimum speeds for new broadband networks, while prioritizing even faster networks. For a typical family, this means kids could download homework (or stream Netflix) even as parents work remotely — all without their connection slowing to a crawl.

Third, the bill includes $2 billion for broadband on tribal lands, including the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute here in Colorado. According to the FCC, one in three homes on tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband — a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country. Closing this gap is an economic and moral imperative.

Finally, the infrastructure bill prioritizes affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option. Inexplicably, Washington has never insisted on this before. And it can’t come soon enough.

All of these ideas came directly from the BRIDGE Act and what I’ve learned from Colorado. Now we have to pass them into law.

If we do, it would represent the biggest broadband investment in our history, but also one of the most transformative investments in our future. It will mean every worker in our mountain communities can connect remotely for their jobs. It will mean every farmer and rancher can deploy the latest technologies for precision agriculture. It will mean every family can connect with their doctors online, instead of traveling hours to the local clinic. And it will mean no student will be left without broadband, which today is no different than leaving them without textbooks.

We are on the verge of connecting every American to affordable, high-speed broadband. And if we succeed, we can take satisfaction in knowing that Colorado led the way.

Michael Bennet is U.S. Senator from Colorado. This piece was originally published in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Internet Service Providers Benefit From a Shared Fiber Network Infrastructure

Both emerging and established internet service providers will stand to gain from SiFi Networks’ shared broadband model.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks

“Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.” These were words spoken by President Joe Biden in July 2021, minutes before he signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. This is poignantly relevant to telecom companies in the United States. In the U.S., an industry that limits consumer choice makes it hard for small Internet Service Providers to break through.

As the CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks, I can attest that both emerging and established ISPs stand to gain from a shared broadband model.

Indeed, without healthy competition in the economy, big players could potentially change and charge whatever they want for services that don’t suit the needs of the consumer. For many Americans, this means limited options in terms of providers and services. So, how have we got here?

Monopolies: A competitive advantage?

ISPs have always seen it as a competitive advantage to own and operate their own broadband infrastructure. This makes it difficult for smaller companies to break through, stifling competition and maximizing profits for established corporations. However, heavy investments in network infrastructure can be a double-edged sword — companies have so far disregarded the costs of tying themselves up in long-term infrastructure projects and are now struggling to divest and adapt to a rapidly changing market.

This is why many U.S. towns are still served by slow, outdated cable and the national fiber coverage sits at a meager 32 per cent. But, in an age where the internet is critical for education, healthcare and business growth, consumer demands for high-speed connectivity make fiber optic the only viable option.

As it stands, only the big telecoms players can feasibly upgrade their cable networks. However, this is costly, disruptive, and takes years to complete, meaning ISPs cannot expect a quick return on investment.

A new broadband ecosystem is needed to give ISPs of all sizes the chance to respond to consumer demands without necessarily overhauling their existing network infrastructure, a costly and time-consuming option. It is here that embracing open access broadband models may prove effective and helpful.

Don’t miss Broadband Breakfast’s annual Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference, which is sponsored by entities including SiFi Networks. The event unites infrastructure investment fund managers, institutional investors, private equity and venture capitalists with senior broadband leaders and brings clarity to the next business model for advanced digital infrastructure. 

Fostering competition with open access

Open access infrastructure essentially means sharing a fiber optic network. Many companies are reluctant to use this model because they believe that increased competition could negatively affect their profits. In reality, there are many benefits to be gained from using a shared network infrastructure. The first is that open access broadband gives ISPs access to a larger pool of potential customers. Giving consumers more choice over their broadband packages and providers will attract a more diverse demographic of customers and thus, promote overall revenue.

At a time when customer demand dictates the need to upgrade services and improve connectivity speed and quality, open access can also help ISPs of all sizes minimize costs. Construction and maintenance of a network is carried out by the infrastructure developer, freeing up budget for ISPs, who can redirect it into areas of the business that need extra attention, such as boosting customer relationships. Larger ISPs, who spend millions of dollars per year maintaining their network infrastructure, could pull their savings into improving and diversifying their product offerings.

Sharing an infrastructure will mean more ISPs can operate in the market, fostering competition, lowering prices and offering better consumer choice. Citizens who previously felt cut-off from basic educational and healthcare services because they couldn’t afford their only broadband option, should then be able to pursue more affordable packages. This will naturally encourage more residents and businesses to subscribe, creating a larger pool of potential customers and ultimately improving economic growth and social mobility.

Open access is attractive to larger ISPs too. As it stands, the telecoms sector ranks at the bottom of 46 industries for customer satisfaction according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. Therefore, if they didn’t need to budget for the operation and maintenance of their fiber, and to upgrade outdated copper-based networks that no longer satisfy consumers’ demands, more money could be invested in bettering customer communication and service. If customers are happy with their ISP, and a good brand reputation can be established, this will be a huge competitive advantage.

“Fair competition is what made America the wealthiest, most innovative nation in history,” said Biden during his White House press conference. If smaller ISPs had a fair chance to enter the market, the well-established big players could stay competitive by improving their customer experience and tailoring their services to satisfy the needs of their customers. Ownership of the network infrastructure is no longer the only or even the best way to compete in the high-speed internet space. An open-access model will diversify the market and allow a variety of ISPs to thrive.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson is CEO of SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and owns FiberCity networks. Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties in cities make use of FiberCity networks, which also offer connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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