The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

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The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

At the end of the recently-opened Expo Line in Los Angeles ― and you’ll want to take that snazzy light rail, because the I-10 freeway running between downtown and the coast is one of the 10 most-congested roadways in the world ― you’re in Santa Monica, California. You’re at the Colorado Esplanade stop, a stunning platform of pedestrian- and bike-friendly multi-modality that feels open and available. It’s just one of many great things about my hometown. There is the superb weather. There is the beach and the pier. There is street life and the RAND Corporation (“We’re based in Santa Monica because that’s where we were founded, and it suits us”).

And there is the city’s most recent source of civic pride: its street lights and traffic signal poles. Don’t laugh. I think of them as the Colorado Esplanade in the sky.

No, I am not celebrating their function as providers of light. Their real power comes from a transformation ― into neutral platforms that provide the tools of connectivity to everyone. Very few American cities (notable exception: Atlanta ) have carried out this transmogrification, but every single one will need to. Santa Monica is showing the way: it is a city that will be able to control its future digital destiny, because it is taking a comprehensive, competition-forcing approach to the transmission of data.

The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

Here’s why poles are generally important:for the advanced wireless transmissions ( whatever 5G turns out to be ) that will be central to our shared digital future, you need access to fiber optic cables at frequent geographic intervals. That fiber, in turn, needs to be “dark” ― meaning that it’s unlit by lasers and is just a passive transmission medium that can be traversed by a tsunami of 5G data. And access to that dark fiber needs to be available at a reasonable price.

When that reasonably priced dark fiber is connected to a pole, you can hang wireless transmission boxes off that pole. And if those poles are spaced no more than 200 meters apart, you can treat them as “microsites:” places for facilitating very advanced, high-capacity wireless services covering sidewalks, homes, and businesses.

The ideal pole will be like an electrical outlet in a home: available at a standard, reasonable price to any wireless carrier wanting to connect; connected to a standard wire (in the pole context, dark fiber); and incorruptible. No one―no vendor of devices or extension cords―should get better access to that outlet than anyone else, or be able to slow down someone else’s arrival on that pole. So, poles could be extremely useful.

But not all poles are the same. I’ve recently written about telephone poles (or utility poles) as places of high drama and conflict. There are special fights that go on there that are inherently unfriendly to cities, competition, and innovation. These fights are made possible by a murky regulatory setting that is easily used by incumbent telecom companies with a deep and utterly rational interest in maintaining the status quo. Go into a meeting about telephone poles as a city and you’ll feel like you were the last one to come to the party: all the private guys in the room have gained control and can easily outmaneuver you.

Streetlights and traffic signal poles are different. They’re part of the public right of way; they’re assets that are often owned and maintained by cities themselves, or by the local power company. With streetlights and signal poles, a city stands a chance of pushing along a competitive and innovative world of Internet of Things and sensors and data transmission, as long as it acts decisively to open those street lights and signal poles on a standard technical basis ― again, like an electrical outlet.

The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

Here are the three world-shaking stepsSanta Monica recently took. First, Santa Monica already had dark fiber available to its streetlights and traffic signal poles because of its 100 gigabit CityNet network. As such, the city could make sure that all of these connections were working well and were reasonably priced.

Second, Santa Monica controls most of its streetlights. Southern California Edison recently ran a 30-month program aimed at selling those streetlights to California cities. It was a win-win move: SCE wanted to gradually get out of the light- and power-distribution business, and cities that bought these streetlights could replace traditional streetlights with LED bulbs. LED: lower energy use; lower maintenance costs. (The SCE program ended last summer.)

But the third step was the charm: This past summer, Santa Monica adopted an ordinance requiring that wireless carriers get access to Santa Monica’s streetlights and traffic signal poles only on a neutral basis. It also sets design requirements for these rights-of-way assets, emphasizing the need for nice-looking poles that conceal gear. But the important thing is that carriers will not be able, in the words of former Santa Monica CIO Jory Wolf, to “delay or preclude” competition. The desired result: no one can lock up these poles.

Companies have figured out that streetlight access is valuable territory. As Wolf warns, “All the controversy about the telephone poles is now going to be moved to streetlight poles. Companies are looking for exclusive rights to poles and saying they can’t co-locate [with their competitors]. They’re all hiring firms to lock up their permits and rights to as many poles as possible, as quickly as possible, before governments can organize.”

Santa Monica’s new ordinance gets ahead of this game plan and defeats it. Streetlight access will be standardized and subject to a reasonable monthly fee charged by the city.

The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

Cities that get control of their streetlightsand connect them to municipally overseen, reasonably priced dark fiber can chart their own Internet of Things futures, rather than leave their destinies in the hands of vendors whose priorities are driven (rationally) by the desire to control whole markets and keep share prices and dividends high rather than provide public benefits. (Here’s a good explainer from San Jose of the role of streetlights in the Internet of Things.)

Local governments haven’t seen the importance of their role in ensuring public benefits from these advanced wireless transmissions until very recently. But I’m hoping Santa Monica’s ordinance will help them make the right decisions.

Neutral “micro” cell sites can make very high-capacity wireless transmissions available, competitively, to everyone (and every sensor) nearby. This can and should cause an explosion of options and new opportunities for economic growth, innovation, and human flourishing in general. It’s a phase change. But it will only happen in a healthy, productive way if cities swiftly put in place comprehensive plans for their streetlights and traffic signals.

If Los Angeles, the land of the car, can build a train line, any city can figure out how to control its streetlights. But cities need to act fast. The train may already have left the station.

The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

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