After 15 years of rural living on a small farm in Southern California, my wife and I recently moved back into the city. Now, as we walk around our neighborhood, we are often reminded that we live in one of the smartest “smart cities” in the world: Santa Monica, Calif. We often think about the fact that Santa Monica CityNet, the city-owned network running on fiber optics beneath our feet, is one of the fastest metropolitan networks in the world at 100 gigabits per second. We often see technicians splicing cables to connect a new building or installing smart traffic lights, street lights and small cells (which I wrote about last month).
In the last few years, I have attended several conferences on smart cities and have spoken at several of them. I have read numerous articles from various viewpoints and written some myself. I have read and heard some wild ideas bandied about, such as the UCLA urban planner that suggested it was time to quit building parking garages because autonomous vehicles and the declining ownership of personal vehicles in the very near future would make parking obsolete.
You know there is nothing new here. Give high tech an idea, and the backers hype it to death. If you read many online articles, you would assume that autonomous vehicles are just around the corner. Cellular wireless will replace fiber to the home. The internet of things (IoT) will include tens of billions of devices that will guide us into a utopian future. Maybe these things will happen one day, but it will take time.
Part of the problem is that most people just see the one technology they are promoting, and few realize the need for infrastructure—especially fiber optics—to support them.
I have mentioned some of the elements—such as autonomous vehicles, advanced cellular communications and the IoT—that make up a smart city. In fact, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. City planners tell us a smart city must include massive fiber optic backbones to support small cells and traditional cell sites, landline phones, internet service providers and fiber to the home, private communications networks for city services, public and private Wi-Fi and private networks for internet connections to businesses.
Transportation planners are focusing on intelligent transportation systems that start with smart traffic lights to improve the flow of traffic and add high-resolution cameras to identify traffic types and manage the flow of cars, buses, public service vehicles and the growing bicycle traffic, not to mention pedestrians. Next, they are developing smart traffic signals and signs that can talk to vehicles to assist in the movement of traffic and increase safety. Communications from the infrastructure to vehicles and among vehicles are considered essential to making self-driving cars a reality.
Public services, including all utilities, are part of the smart city plans. Fire and police communications are most important, but utilities—water, sewer, gas and electricity—are looking into how to become more efficient and cost-effective. Creating a communications and control infrastructure to handle natural disasters is at the top of the list for many cities, especially along coastal areas that face storms and rising ocean levels. Electrical utilities may have the most complex job, modernizing infrastructure and grid management, accommodating alternative energy sources and developing storage systems to even out their output, integrating microgrids and securing their systems from hackers and terrorists.
One issue is being overlooked by smart cities promoters: data. A smart city will accumulate massive amounts of data that must be acquired, stored and analyzed to gain the desired benefits. Cities must not only have the infrastructure to host commercial data centers, but they must build their own or contract services to store their data and develop software systems to extract the information they need to benefit from it.
Everything I have discussed will depend on high-speed, low-latency, ultra-reliable communications networks running on fiber. Santa Monica and other cities have been proactive in planning and implementing high-capacity metropolitan networks and marketing them to interested users. Some have depended on other providers to build networks on their rights of way and lease fiber or communications services to them. Some have let many providers use their rights of way or infrastructure and now have multiple competing services.
I have been asked what is the right solution for a city planning for the future. There is no single answer to that question. Different cities base their decision on their vision, politics and finances. I just always point out that building these networks requires competent contractors who understand fiber optics.