City ScaleUp: from “Wow!” to “Now!”

Glomo Awards

Member of the global a Leading Cities, Boston, and International Advisor for The World e-Governments Organization of Cities and Local Governments (WEGO), Seoul. Founder, board member and Senior consultant at Baumann Consultancy Network for Smart Cities projects and internationalization strategies, Italy. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In my last article City SmartUp I have explored four preeminent trends, described as tools and illustrated with some global cases: (#1) Rethinking the Smart City Pitch; (#2) Smart City Concept Design; (#3) “Appsation” Reconnecting with Citizens, and (#4) Attracting and Promoting ICT Pilot Projects. The main argument is that you can leapfrog the traditional phases of the development process. It works perfectly for newbies, cities and companies. It is now faster and much cheaper to get there, it is almost like playing lego when it comes to start pilot projects. The city hires an experienced and empowered CDO, Chief or City Digital Officer to quick off the show. And it starts really quickly,  a “sampling group of citizens” get connected to the city hall; a fantastic solution for smart lighting is tested in a street or even in a district; car sharing is working well along “some" charging stations; smart meters; smart sensors; smart, smart, smart and successful pilot cases! Officials are glad, private partners are excited and citizens are anxious for the next round. This was the “WOW!” momentum. Congrats, your city gets its first badge -Junior Smart City. It is absolutely a good start, but definitely not enough. It is time to Scale it Up, “NOW!”.

This article will address the challenges that follow after piloting a Smart City project –how to Scale-it-Up. If you have done your homework well, things will be easier. At this stage it is not only clear to you but to all stakeholders that your Smart City project is in your city's DNA. Probably the successful pilot projects that your city managed were due to this initial orientation. Remember, your citizens don't want a new city but a smarter city. Second point, if for the pilot projects your city got to attract partners to ‘sponsor” and execute it, now it is time to understand how successful the projects were also for them. If it is true, they will be the first one to support you to scale. In the last article I listed 4 tools to SmartUp, so I will start from tool #5 to illustrate the ScaleUp. I will try to illustrate with at least 2 successful cases each one of the next tools, so probably it will be one article for each one of them, following a minimum logical order of implementation.


Tool # 5 - Enabling 24x7 full connection in your city

We all agree that the core of a smart city project is not anymore technology but people. Having a citizen-oriented project is already half way to the success. But we should also agree that the main driver to smart city projects is ICT. It is important to reinforce that the old concept IT (Information Technology) was upgraded with the addition of communication. In this case, communication is related to the ability of not only one-way flow of information but creating an interaction between the two sides : one that wants to inform and the other  that is using and reacting to the information. And the tendency is to go even deeper in the use of technology when we reach the IoT (Internet of things) era. Information and communication technology is being used to connect people to people, people to machines and machines to machines. Daily use things like home appliances, bikes and Cars are being connected. Public Lights are becoming smart and connected; car parking; water meters; you can name it. That said, the first step to scale any smart city project is to enable complete, ubiquitous and full time internet connection in your city. No shadows, not interruptions, no crashes. Internet is becoming  as important as a reliable and stable utility supply (power, water or gas) to a city. It is (or was until now) very costly because it implies infrastructure investment. Doesn't matter if we are talking about satellite, optical fiber nets or mobile 3, 4 or future 5Gs, all known technologies up to now were based on complex and expensive  hardware and urban infrastructure. So, if you have not realized about it before, this will be the first big headache in scaling-up. But we are here to discuss about solutions not problems, so allow me to detail two successful cases I visited personally this year:


Case 1 - New York smart growth 

First one is called LinkNYC in New York. I had the opportunity to visit the project personally last February 2016  and I got really impressed. The main idea behind the project is to replace all the  7.500 to 10.000 old public phones booths with modern wifi kiosks, a new technology developed by Civiq from Massachusetts. According to The Wall Street Journal the project is being managed by a consortium named CityBridge, a joint venture between three main companies: the smartphone chip maker Qualcomm Inc., networking company CIVIQ Smartscapes and Intersection, which is connected to Google parent company Alphabet Inc. CityBridge says it is investing more than $200 million in the project. The kiosks have basically 3 core functions: 


1. Enable free ultrafast wifi connection for pedestrians. Until February, the faster real public free connection I had experienced was in Seoul in 2015, reaching 25 Mbps and believe me, I was really happy! In Italy I pay for 20 Mbps (the maximum offered in my town) and the local operator is obliged by law to assure me at least 10% - 2 Mbps - It is not a joke! So Korea was offering me 11 times faster for free! Paradise, I thought! Back to New York, when I managed the test, 1 week after the launch of service my mobile almost collapsed, 216 Mbps - almost 10 times faster than Korea and amazing 100 times faster than my home connection.

2. Free national calls: As the main idea was to replace the public phones, you can also make phone calls. There is a  built in tablet that can be used to call as the old phones, but here the good news , you can call for free any american land number!

3. City Info: The tablet also allows internet navigation. From consulting any city service or to get tourism information again, all for free.

The business model: As the old phones, kiosks are being installed in every single corner of Manhattan, less than 50 meters of each other. As state of the arts pieces, each kiosk costs around $30.000 American dollars, so how to afford it? New York is a rich city so they have budget enough to permit such luxury commodity right? Wrong again. The project is not costing a penny to the city hall, or even better, to the tax payers, it is a PPP based in public concession. The business model is based in advertisement. Each kiosk is equipped with a screen, that works as a billboard. Indeed, by licensing the service, New York city become a business partner in the project and will receive royalties from the revenue. The business plan forecasts that in 10 years time the city will get paid over half billion dollars. So, summarizing: Smart City project in large scale + no public investment + new revenue for the city. Sounds like music for any mayor, don't you agree?

Now you are probably thinking: well, it was possible to do it in New York, because it is New York! Besides being the 6th largest metropolis in the planet, whit a metropolitan population, considering Newark, of 19.43 million people, what is fantastic to the media business model, the whole “basic” infrastructure such as optical fibers were already there, so it was a" perfect storm" “to attract the project! Yes, now you are right! According to U.S. Department of Transportation, the costs per meters on all new projects in the U.S from over the past 15 years have ranged from $4,00 to $49,00 American dollars and even more expensive in place like California that can reach over 62 American dollars per meter. So we are talking about some millions of dollars to get level zero of the connectivity were talking about. 


Case 2 - The magic box - a “plug-and-play" Internet connection on a national scale

Good news here is our second case. I was really glad to visit a a company called Athonet located just some few kilometers far from my home. They were not only nominated but won the Global Mobile Awards 2016 in the category of – Best Solution for Growing Smaller or Independent Networks issued by the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona. It definitely caught the whole industry’s attention. Athonet’s CEO is also named as one of WIRED magazine’s 17 Global Influencers expanding human possibility through technology. Interestingly, Athonet has successfully enabled customers worldwide to deploy local internet networks, simply, cost-effectively and in record time. Basically, they can enable a complete full internet network in a vast area with an initial cost less than 5% of a normal investment budget because they have replaced all that expensive hardware I talked about before with simple software running on standard IT servers.   Among the projects they have implemented, there two in particular I would like to highlight. The first one was a humanitarian service developed during the last big earthquake in Italy in 2012. Within just a few hours they deployed a complete local wireless internet network in the disaster area, 35 kilometers north of Bologna. It allowed the Italian Civil protection teams to run operations using HD live-streaming videos of the disaster area to control centres ,communicating and co-ordinating the activities of emergency personnel and helping save lives. More than 2km radius of LTE coverage was immediately available for emergency response workers. 24 LTE wireless cameras were instantly deployed for video surveillance of key areas and a command  and control center was settled. Athonet was awarded a medal by the president of the Republic of Italy for this project.  They are now applying this to provide instant ubiquitous coverage for smart cities.

A second remarkable project, using the same technology, was managed in 2015. Access, a mobile operator in Malawi, Africa, approached Athonet with the challenge to implement a 4G/LTE network, the first in the country, in a matter of weeks to enable them (Access) to launch the latest generation broadband wireless service. Malawi is among the smallest countries in Africa and it is among the world's least-developed nations with around 85% of the population living in rural areas. The network had to be scalable nationwide, very cost-efficient, IT-friendly and simple to integrate with Access’ existing infrastructure including its CDMA network. In 2011, there were 3.952 million mobiles and almost 1 million Internet users, very few numbers for a country with more than 17 million inhabitants. We can easily figure out how important can be an affordable infrastructure project for a developing country. 

Without going through all the complexity behind technical terms as Home Subscriber Server (HSS), Home Location Register (HLR), Voice-over-LTE (IMS for VoLTE), Voice-over-WiFi (WiFi calling) and LTE Broadcast (eMBMS) and make it simple to understand, imagine a wifi router that you install at home in a plug-and-play connect. Athonet plugs-and-plays on a a city or national scale.  

 The business model: the big competitive advantage of the system is the low initial costs for the government or company that need to establish city-wide internet networks. It removes the huge barrier to deployment of city-wide networks that comes from the cost of conventional technologies. We come down from 7 or 8 zeros figures to few thousands of dollars. It is a pay-for-use model, where app companies, developers and finally the end-user will pay the bill in a long term perspective. Just to remind you, at the end of the day it will be "us” anyway to pay the bill by taxes, consumption or both. if your city or country still doesn't have a full internet infrastructure developed, they will add it to a list of concerns that includes public health, education and security. If we consider the traditional expensive infrastructure such as optical fibers, probably internet will not the first priority. So, new solutions in this field are really welcome.

The new concept of Smart Cities is definitely based in smart citizens and smart solutions. We need to go out of the box to achieve our goals. Be focused, don't lose track and mainly,  keep it simple! It is time to ScaleUp!

By Renato de Castro

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