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News & Press: General News

Connectivity Remains Question on IoT

Saturday, July 8, 2017  
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We have all seen the “vision videos” of a connected future: A businesswoman walks out of her modern home with a semi-transparent phone streaming a pristine 4K video connection with her business associate. She drops into a self-driving car and glides through the city streets as the car reports critical news, navigates to avoid traffic and alerts the office of her pending arrival. As she enters the doorway to the office, her presence automatically notifies her home that she has arrived; her AC disables and her lonely dog is soothed when Enya starts playing on the Bluetooth speaker. The future is awesome.


The future will be powered by the Internet of Things (IoT). But that statement is fraught with complexities. Just what is IoT? Since the term is hot, nearly every technology company in the world has decided they have technology that is critical to the future of IoT. There is a risk of miring IoT in such a vast array of technology that it loses definition. For our purposes, IoT will be the connection of devices and sensors in a manner to inform each other and humans. Why should MISAC members care?


There is a risk of IoT meaning everything, but I try to break it down to practical examples for my city peers,” says Tim Williamsen, IT Manager in Petaluma. He goes on to cite these examples:


  • Street lights that are connected into a mesh network and can inform you when the bulb is out or you can centrally control the light to dim or brighten it
  • Stop signal coils that report traffic counts in real time to a central traffic management system to then lay traffic congestion data over a map and use an algorithm to redirect traffic in town on different pathways
  • Water meters with data connections that allow for near-real-time reporting of water usage by household to then turn around and report that data to both the water utility for billing purposes and the ratepayer for enhanced visibility into their water usage
  • City fleet vehicle management tools that provide a real-time location of all city vehicles to a central unit that enables stronger field management and optimized work order routing
  • Fixed-location air quality sensors that can report particulate density in critical areas of the city and enable stronger monitoring of pollution emitters or notifications to sensitive receptors like nursing homes or preschools
  • Water system field pressure monitors that connect to a central oversight panel to report water pressure data and quickly identify system leaks or pipe breaks to water system maintenance crews
  • Stationary license plate readers that track ingress and egress points on surface streets and can correlate crime data with specific license plate numbers to identify suspect vehicle patterns
  • Bike-sharing programs, becoming popular as a last-mile solution for mass transit goals, could be tracked and reported on to help manage this highly mobile public resource
  • Buses that suffer breakdowns or get mired in traffic could report themselves as out-of-commission or delayed in real time and push notifications so customers who depend on their service can change plans accordingly


“The list of ideas is endless when it comes to gathering information and trying to put it to good use for your city,” says Williamsen. “Depending on the solution, it can raise serious privacy questions, but my job as a technology resource is to enable the policies and projects that the community, council and city manager have set as the direction in which to move.”


The world of city IoT faces the general challenge of all IoT: connectivity, data storage and integration.


Connectivity is one of the biggest challenges facing IT managers. In the examples above, the volume of data delivered could overwhelm even the largest city IT shop. The connectivity is challenging because devices could be connected from several miles away from city hall; sensor locations do not necessarily have a physical address or structure; and many of the sensors could be mobile.


While from a purely technical vantage point running a fiber ring throughout the city would be fast, reliable and a boon to enabling vast connectivity, that is not practical for most cities. And, of course, fiber does not address the mobility factor—although it could augment a mesh network hybrid of wired and wireless solutions. Therefore, wireless quickly rises to the top as the viable connection option to accommodate the above and similar scenarios. Much like Wi-Fi in city halls has enabled seamless connectivity for staff and residents, that same transparent, always-on connectivity in the field would be attractive.


Mobile data service providers are ready to jump in to help, of course. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all offer webpages dedicated to their “smart cities” solutions which feature their wireless connectivity as a central element of their connection options.


“In Petaluma,” continues Williamsen, “for most of our IoT efforts we were looking at really remote locations, so wireless was the only option. At less than $40 a month for a Verizon connection that met our needs, it kind of just made sense. There was not much else to evaluate.”


Incumbent wireless carriers offer the advantage of being ready to go and having solutions that handle all of the data connectivity between devices and your data center. In many cases, the IoT device the city acquires will come pre-configured with an existing connectivity option. The downside is that you face ongoing costs for this connectivity. For example, T-Mobile announced their new IoT solution this January. The solution features an integrated Sequans LTE Cat 1 chip along with a data plan that allows 5MB/month from $20 per device the first year to $6 per device the year after that.


Depending on the application, the T-Mobile pricing could make a lot of sense. 175 KB a day could be sufficient for simple water usage data from a water meter with a daily download, but it would never work for a video stream. Consider: If you have 3,000 water meters in your community, each with a connection, the price tag is $18,000 a year for recurring costs, but you could likely recover that with reduced labor costs, even adjusting for increased field tech support costs for water meters where the connection fails.


“I don’t operate with the belief that the City must build everything from the ground up, but when we talk about initiatives that will likely have a permanent life in our community—think parks, roads, water systems—then it makes sense to think about how the City might want to build and operate this fundamental underpinning of a more connected community,” observes Tim. “If leveraging IoT is going to be a core competitive advantage for our community and a major dependence for our residents, do we have some obligation to be as expert in that connectivity as we do in water quality and traffic management?”




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