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Smart city tech growing in the U.S.

Smart city tech growing in the U.S.

Tests for traffic control, other projects, underway while cities find ways to pay for them

The adoption of smart city technology to manage traffic, water supplies, air pollution and other needs will see an upswing this year in U.S. cities, according to AT&T's smart city executive and a market research analyst.

IBM and Cisco have been pitching the themes of a smarter planet and the internet of everything for more than five years. Now, city governments nationwide are pushing pilot projects of these efforts and seeking ways to raise revenues for tech deployments by issuing bonds and imposing sales taxes to pay for them.

"2016 was when a lot of cities and their leadership got active around wanting to become smarter, but 2017 is the year we'll see cities move from the project phase to building out a holistic framework for smart technology," said Mike Zeto, general manager of the AT&T Smart Cities business unit, in an interview.

"2016 was a test year, and 2017 really will see cities looking at ways to fund that technology, while late 2017 will be when cities make choices around implementations. Then in 2018, we'll see projects deployed. We are still at the beginning of a journey, but a lot of progress has been made," Zeto added.

IDC analyst Ruthbea Clarke largely agreed. Since 2011, her team has tracked smart city projects and the technology that is sold to cities globally.

"We do feel there's smart city growth, although it's never as fast as some people want it to be," Clarke said in an interview. "Cities have viciously slow procurement processes, but we do feel there was a big [upward] change late last year, and it's not just in Singapore, New York and Barcelona."

The uptick in city interest and funding started in late 2016, which means there will be big announcements of pilot projects and even deployments in 2017, Clarke added.

"In Chicago, there's a huge smart lighting conversion underway," she noted. In that project, 270,000 outdoor street, alley and park lights will be upgraded to more reliable LED technology. It also will include a lighting management system.

AT&T on Wednesday announced it has partnerships or active smart city proof-of-concept tests in eight U.S. locations, with the newest in Portland, Oregon. The other seven are in Atlanta, Chapel Hill, N.C., Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County, Montgomery County, Md., and at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Both Atlanta and Miami-Dade are testing a vehicle-to-anything (V2X) advanced communications platform that AT&T has developed with Ford and Delphi to be used with autonomous buses, taxis and cars, as they communicate with traffic signals, lane sensors and other infrastructure, Zeto said.

Miami-Dade County launched a Smart Cities Operations Center to give government leaders a central hub for monitoring traffic and other conditions in the area. A similar concept is being evaluated in a number of cities globally, including Singapore.

While AT&T's focus so far has been on U.S. cities, Zeto said the company soon plans to announce a smart city collaboration with a European city and has plans to work in Mexico where it is already expanding its cellular network capabilities. Zeto said many cities outside the U.S. have embraced smart technology in so-called green field locations often outside of city centers. That approach has helped some Asian and European cities get a leg up on U.S. cities, he said.

"More U.S. cities by now have a designated point person for smart city technology, such as a CIO or CTO. They are helping break down the silos in city governments," Zeto added.

AT&T is hopeful that an expected Trump administration effort to improve U.S. infrastructure will allow cities to take control of smart city projects, instead of having tight control at the federal level. City officials are better suited to direct and monitor smart city investment to make it more efficient, Zeto argued.

"Instead of just adding concrete to install a new bridge or replace one in disrepair, it would help to monitor it remotely," Zeto said. Today, for example, sensors are used to monitor vibration on a bridge, he said, and artificial intelligence technologies are emerging that use digital images to spot minute shifts in bridge spans or to detect when a bridge has sunk slightly over time.

Zeto said Atlanta has been progressive in coming up with funding for smart technology. A successful city bond referendum will raise $250 million to upgrade traffic signals with communications that are designed to decrease congestion. A sales tax increase will also be used to expand the city's mass transit system.

"Atlanta has roused its community," Zeto said. "It's taken a while, but it's happening. Public-private partnerships are coming because the private shareholders realize improvements will benefit their employees."

Another positive step toward smart cities technology is the adoption of open data policies in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles, Zeto said. With this concept, a city can "open up" data it has on the location of various resources for public use, such as parking areas. With that data, a private software developer can build an app that drivers can use to find available parking spaces or to offer another service.

One example is in Montreal, which opened up its data to a developer who built an app called Prkng that helps drivers find open parking spaces. Another app in development uses publicly available data to help parents find the least crowded emergency room among local hospitals where a sick child could be treated soonest.

Zeto said AT&T has an advantage over smaller vendors in smart city projects because it has built partnerships with many cities over 60 years in providing communications infrastructure and services. "We've had quite a start in the U.S. amongst our direct competitors," he said.

Clarke said prior to 2017, a lot of positive momentum around smart city tech was voiced by vendors like AT&T. Lately, cities are starting to sing the same tune.

"A lot of the talk is marketing, but there's lately been a big change in spending, even if it's incremental," she said. "You see a lot more funded pilots."

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