How do you build a solid communications network (and build value on top of it)?

Wed, 2016-09-28 17:00 -- Doug Peeples

Cities must have a strong, versatile communications network if they hope to become truly smart. Those communications capabilities are how city governments and their citizens engage with each other, and how city services are managed and delivered. But how do you ensure the network you build (or upgrade) covers the bases for a reasonable cost, gets a thumbs up from citizens and just maybe provides opportunities to build value? The story below provides some real-world thinking from experienced city officials and other industry professionals that will help you get started. – Doug Peeples


While the next big thing often is exactly that, it isn't always necessary. Take telecommunications networks for example. Laying fiber is very expensive and you don't need to put it everywhere. That was one piece of advice from a group of experts addressing how to ensure robust telecommunications and its role in a smart city during a Smart Cities week panel discussion Wednesday.

Samir Saini, CIO for the city of Atlanta, Georgia, described the city's ambitious plan to build its own communications network – complete with carrier grade fiber and a wireless mesh network to follow. But, he commented, "You can't do fiber everywhere. So we need all types." And speaking fiber, he also saw opportunities to cut the cost of deploying it: where possible, share some of the costs. If Comcast or Google or others are laying fiber in the same corridor as you are, they may be willing to go in on the cost of conduit or maintenance.

And speaking of partnering, he had another idea. "We can't build all the things we want, but we can partner with Georgia Tech and build a data platform to create new solutions."

Mike Zeto, general manager for the smart cities unit for Council Lead Partner AT&T, brought up another approach, one intended to save money and add value to a communications network. He said the company sees itself as not only a communications provider, but also a software and technology company. His recommendation? Build the enabling network "and layer additional services on top" such as streetlights. And, he said, connected devices add value to the network too, but the "core component" (the network) has to be there first.

Also, the citizens who are to ultimately benefit from a new or upgraded network need to be a critical element in planning development strategy. Anil Sharma, networking and telecommunications director for the DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer, said "Broadband should be considered a utility and everyone should have access to it. We need to improve the lives of citizens across the board."

Citizen data also must be protected, the panelists agreed. While data platforms and open data can be leveraged for economic development, it should never be collected in a way that leaves citizens feeling exposed. As a network is being developed, steps need to be taken to ensure data confidentiality and security.

And one thing you shouldn't do
For Jonathan Adelstein, CEO for the Wireless Infrastructure Association, negotiating a contract with a partnering company can make or break the entire project. Cities may be tempted to ask for too much, for a right of way, for example. The problem is, even though the companies your city wants to partner with may have deep pockets, they will walk away if demands are unreasonable. "If a city thinks it can ask for too much for rights of way, they won't be smart cities because the carriers will go elsewhere."

To continue the discussion…
Ubiquitous telecommunications are essential for a smoothly functioning, connected smart city. Click on the Telecommunications chapter of the Smart Cities Guide to learn more about available types and combinations of communications cities employ to manage operations and deliver citizen services. You will also learn about how the benefits of smart communications systems extend to all aspects of a city, from public safety and traffic management to health and education.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.