Whenever technologists describe a future filled with so-called “smart cities,” they’re talking about an Internet of Things driving Municipalities of Efficiency.
They paint a picture of power grids better at answering energy demands, more accurate monitoring of traffic patterns, sensors using gunfire detection technology to assist law enforcement, a narrowed gap between citizens and vital municipal services. (Not to mention faster networks for all that Netflix streaming.)
AT&T is now working to bring that future to Atlanta, and it could happen sooner than you think, thanks to technologies offered by both big, established companies and startups working on intriguing new possibilities in cybersecurity and mobile apps.
The telecom announced its Smart Cities framework earlier this year, with Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago set as the initiative’s pilot cities and universities, and seven companies as partners: IBM, Intel, Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, and Qualcomm. The company recently added Montgomery County, Maryland and Chapel Hill, N.C. as pilot cities, with Nokia and Atlanta’s Southern Company joining as partners.
The “framework” part of Smart Cities means AT&T takes the lead on coordinating city, company and academic IoT projects relating to infrastructure, citizen engagement, transportation and public safety. The solutions that AT&T, those cities, and its partners are now working on “could help reduce congestion in a commute, could help alert a young mother with a child about to go to a park about an air quality issue, or to other public safety issues,” said Mike Zeto, general manager and executive director of AT&T’s Smart Cities Business Solutions. “It comes down to improving the lives of citizens.”
AT&T, however, isn’t the only major tech company working on a smart city plan; partner Intel, for example, is already knee-deep in a similar program with San Jose, Ca. Zeto admits there are some competitive offerings from other alliance members, but “if you really look at what each company does really well, there are core service offerings that don’t overlap very much. If you look at AT&T, we provide secure connectivity via networks that may be used as the thread through all the Smart City solutions. What we’ve decided is that we’ll all focus on core solutions, because that’s what we’re all good at.”
Chicago had already started its own IoT initiative before joining AT&T’s Smart Cities. But other municipalities offer challenges in the form of “siloed” thinking and the need to view solutions more holistically. Sometimes with large public/private partnerships, it takes a company as big as Zeto’s to move projects like Smart Cities forward. “AT&T is really good at working with ecosystems and bringing them together,” having done so with cities for more than 100 years, he said.
When it comes to Atlanta’s ecosystem, Smart Cities will offer the city’s flourishing tech startup community plenty of chances to join the telecom’s IoT parade into the future.
Zeto knows the local startup world well. He was the co-founder and CEO of Proximus Mobility, a location-based software company born at ATDC and sold in 2013. He is also an industry fellow with the Georgia Research Alliance and a mentor for Atlanta entrepreneurs.
A built-out IoT will need better security, and Zeto’s sees “a huge opportunity” for Atlanta’s cybersecurity companies. “For the startups on the device side, there are some big plays coming out of (Georgia) Tech. I also think there are two other areas, data and analytics, and both Tech and Emory have strong programs there and are turning out entrepreneurs.”
Atlanta’s applications developers can help when it comes to empowering citizens as customers of their cities. “One of the things that startups in Atlanta do well is create apps that engage consumers,” Zeto said. “There will be economic and entrepreneurial opportunities to build on top of data that becomes available for consumer-facing or business-facing value.” That could mean mobile apps providing better real-time data for alerts on traffic/transit conditions.
AT&T is already working on a Smart City Network Operations Center, a dashboard of sorts for city officials offering near real-time snapshots of traffic, power and water systems from one location.
The first three months of this year have been spent on getting AT&T cities and business partners used to the Smart Cities framework. “We’re in that scoping phase now, and that will take us through the April/May timeframe,” Zeto said. “Then we’ll work into the deployment phase as we move into fall. We’ll have spotlight areas starting to be up and running.” AT&T doesn’t provide more information than that, but it wants cities to show some progress quickly and study data generated by the early projects.
That way, the future may appear that it has already arrived.
For Zeto, that means “being able to wake up in the morning and have everything to a certain extent be automated, not sit at traffic lights because there is’re vehicle-to-vehicle communication and sensors tying everything back to a traffic management system. And then having the lights go on in the office or the home when you arrive, and the temperature goes up. If you think about utopia, it’s everything from door to door being automated, but at the same time, it’s keeping you engaged with what’s going on around you in the city you live in.”