Cable travels tech-agnostic road to smart cities

Whether it involves wired connections on fiber and HFC networks or links via Wi-Fi, cellular or low-power/long-reach wireless technologies, the cable industry is taking a technology-agnostic path with its smart cities strategies and initiatives.

Cable has a "ubiquitous network" that can utilize a wide range of access technologies and protocols for various smart cities efforts, Patricia Zullo, senior director, Smart City Solutions, at Charter's Spectrum Enterprise unit, said Thursday. She spoke during a "Live Learning" webinar from SCTE/ISBE in partnership with Light Reading that explored some current smart cities projects and opportunities that are being explored.

"We can absorb data from any type of sensor" and feed that back to a central depository that partners can tap into for real-time or near real-time views and analysis of their smart cities projects and applications, she added.

Cox Communications has also taken a multi-technology tangent into smart cities and industrial IoT using Wi-Fi and LoRaWAN, along with plans to add narrowband IoT to the mix, according to Drew Davis, executive director, wireless technology, at Cox Communications. There's "no silver bullet solution" for IoT, he said.

Shaw Communications, a Canadian operator that operates HFC networks, a wireless service under the Freedom Mobile brand, and even satellite-based services, has also taken a multi-technology approach with smart cities and industrial IoT.

Shaw's network diversity opens up opportunities in these markets that gives the operator some advantages over other players. But it also looks to team up with experts in areas such as smart lighting, parking and other IoT services that can be aggregated and assembled into product sets to meet the individual needs of municipalities.

"We're a network and content provider," said Clarke Stevens, principal architect, emerging technologies, Shaw Communications. "But we're good at aggregating services."

Shaw, he adds, doesn't have its own IoT "ecosystem" per se. But, he noted, it does have the ability to integrate IoT products into its core BSS/OSS platform and reapply that toward IoT-facing apps and services that extend into areas like traffic control and smart parking and lighting.

That aggregated approach gives cities "one throat to choke" while also providing Shaw "an advantage over other companies who aren't doing that same sort of thing." And it gives Shaw some product diversity to avoid focusing on one-off products for partners that might have different ideas about what a smart city is.

"Individual IoT products sometimes don't have large margins," Stevens said. "Instead of making a lot of money on a blockbuster product, what you end up needing to do is making a little bit of money on a lot of products that are in demand."

Another example is MachineQ, a Comcast-owned company focused on enterprise IoT that has built its foundation on LoRaWAN, a long-range/low-power technology.

MachineQ is a "LoRaWAN first, not LoRaWAN-only" company, explained John Brzozowski, MachineQ's VP of engineering and CTO.

5G, for example, is "100% complementary" to MachineQ's philosophy, which is to provide "the right hammer for the right nail," he said. "We view ourselves as enablers for smart cities."

Still, MachineQ believes LoRaWAN offers a lot to like for enterprise wireless IoT.

For example, while it might take up to 3,500 Wi-Fi access points to cover one of Comcast's two main office towers in Philadelphia, MachineQ's platform can provide the same coverage for those buildings with 16 of its LoRaWAN gateways, which cost roughly the same as an enterprise-class Wi-Fi access point. Those same gateways also cover a radius of about a half mile to a mile around the buildings.

"That's where the conversation changes," Brzozowski said.

Smart cities progress
Cable's pursuit of smart cities opportunities is still in its early days, but progress is being made.

Spectrum Enterprise, which started to embrace that market more than two years ago, has pilots underway with half a dozen US cities, focusing on apps and services like public safety, transportation and autonomous vehicles, Zullo said. She noted that Spectrum Enterprise hopes to expand its commercial deployments in 2021.

Among the initial projects is one underway in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Spectrum Enterprise is working with the city on a set of initiatives. Smart lighting is part of the first phase, with a second phase to focus on a "smart intersection" project. A third project, involving local STEM schools, is exploring the use of underwater drones to help identify different types of fish and to study how currents and weather patterns affect fish in the bay.

Cox's Davis noted that a recent new project at his company involves "curbside management" using connected kiosks equipped with cameras to help keep tabs on traffic flow. Meanwhile, the company's Cox2M commercial IoT unit has teamed up with Manheim (a unit of Cox Automotive focused on live and online auctions of used vehicles) on a system that is on track to monitor hundreds of thousands of vehicles by year-end. Cox2M is also looking to provide similar services to individual auto dealerships using LoRaWAN technology, Davies noted.

One of MachineQ's cornerstone smart cities customers is Wichita, Kansas, which has used the company's platform to develop an improved gunshot detection system, cut 911 response times from about three minutes down to seconds and set the groundwork for other applications.

Smart cities standards under development
The pandemic is also having an impact on smart cities projects, as budget cuts could slow down some projects.

But it's also causing some cities to explore other ideas and take advantage of sensors and research IoT technologies that can monitor crowds and identify hot spots without being intrusive. "That's what everybody is worried about or concerned about," Zullo said.

Cable's smart cities activities have also reached the industry standards level. SCTE/ISBE, for example, has added a smart cities working group as part of an "Explorer" initiative that also extends into areas such as AI and telemedicine.

That smart cities working group was launched in February and is focused on defining communications, power and location requirements for different aspects of smart cities, explained Chris Bastian, SVP, engineering, and CTO of SCTE/ISBE. The group is also exploring revenue and return on investment models for cable operators and their municipal partners.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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