NYC May Be Leading a Digital Revolution

To become a smart city, New York wants to change its relationship with the telecom industry.

Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video

October 5, 2017

11 Min Read
NYC May Be Leading a Digital Revolution

Many companies are in the midst of a digital transformation, but can the same be said of cities?

New York City certainly thinks so. The first sign that the city of Broadway and bankers had a communications change in mind was its LinkNYC program to convert local telephone booths into WiFi hubs. These old-style booths were a relic of the pre-cellphone age, but as real estate, they still held significant value: Street furniture, after all, is a desirable asset. All it took was connecting that real estate to a fiber network, adding in a digital display advertising model, and New York had itself an investment-worthy project. (See LinkNYC Now Live in All 5 Boroughs.)

But the Big Apple's connectivity ambitions go far beyond phone booths. The city is thinking about what it will take to get everyone in the five boroughs reliably connected and what it needs to do to enable next-generation networking and applications. Smart city dreams? Absolutely. But New York is heavily focused on the connectivity layer that will make its vision for a smarter city possible.

Figure 1: Source: LinkNYC Source: LinkNYC

When many communities talk about smart city initiatives, they refer to pilot programs that add sensors to streetlights or cameras to traffic intersections. But those sensors and other devices have to connect back to a communications network, and New York City is one of the few local governments taking a broad look at how its telecom infrastructure can support that connectivity. The government's goal is to connect both machines and people throughout the region to high-performance networks. That's a big part of how New York will define itself as a smart city.

Unsurprisingly, there are hurdles ahead.

One thing the NYC Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamino believes has to change in order for New York to become a smart city is the way it partners with the telecom sector. Today, the relationship between New York City and the telecom industry is often contentious. But Gamino believes that relationship can and must evolve.

"I think that we just have to come to a mutual understanding of what the reality is of broadband in people's lives," he says. "It's not something that can be considered discretionary, or something that is available to those that can afford to pay full freight. That was a reality at some point in the past. And that's just not the reality we're headed towards in the future."

Gamino also thinks there are ways to satisfy private sector aims -- including reaping the potentially mammoth financial rewards of new Internet of Things services -- while still ensuring that New Yorkers get the best telecom infrastructure possible. One way to do that is to have the city itself contribute more to the process and to collaborate with telecom providers on what assets the local government can bring to the table when network upgrades and new deployments are needed. Gamino is talking about assets like city-owned property -- but more on that in a moment. As far as collaboration goes, Gamino would like his team to be able to sit down with network operators and talk through what each has to offer the other.

"It's a matter of trying to find ways to come together with the private sector. They've got a tremendous installed base, tremendous investments made in really important infrastructure. We just have to step up to our obligation of making sure we maximize that opportunity for everybody in New York," says Gamino.

"And," he adds, "I would hope that at some point we will, through the proper channels, have dialog with service providers – [both] incumbents, the existing people, and frankly even new service providers that might have interesting thoughts on how to accomplish this goal."

Gamino has some interesting thoughts of his own.

Next page: A big idea in distributed access

A big idea in distributed access
The enduring model for connecting telecom networks nationwide has been to string wires between poles or to lay conduit under the ground. However, it's difficult to make a business case for deploying that infrastructure in places where consumers aren't likely to spend significant money on telecom services. One way cities can help get more areas connected is by contributing their own assets to the cause -- whether that means renting out space on light poles for wireless equipment, or granting access to public land for fiber builds. This gets back to the phone booth idea and using real estate that a city like New York already owns to create a more efficient path forward for network deployments.

Critically, however, cities need to think beyond only the assets they control in high-density and/or affluent areas and consider what physical infrastructure they can offer up in regions that may be less initially attractive to telecom operators.

This is where Gamino's big idea comes in.

As Gamino notes, there is physical infrastructure that is already widely distributed because the need for equitable access isn't unique to telecom networks. He cites public libraries, schools, streetlights and more.

"All these things," says Gamino, "were distributed fairly equitably because every neighborhood needs access to a library, and every neighborhood needs access to a park and a fire station and a police station... I think there's a lot of opportunity to piggyback on that equitable distribution that occurred because we want the same sort of equitable distribution of broadband access."

"There will be gaps," Gamino adds. "There will be places where we need more infrastructure of a particular type, but I think by and large if we're smart about what assets we're looking to, we can minimize that by approaching those [assets] that were equally distributed intentionally to begin with."

What Gamino suggests is that cities don't have to be reliant on telecom operators to plan out network deployments that will inherently focus on high-revenue sites. Instead, they can help inform build-out strategies by sharing information on physical infrastructure already present throughout a region, and by opening up access to those assets in a reasonable and cost-efficient way.

Bad blood in the Big Apple
Unfortunately, finding common ground between a city like New York and the telecom industry is easier said than done. There's already bad blood in the Big Apple as evidenced by the fact that the city is fining Charter Communications Inc. and suing Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) for allegedly failing to meet broadband build-out requirements. (See NY State Levies $13M Fine on Charter and NYC Charges Verizon With Fios Fraud.)

But if there was ever a time to put conflict aside in the area of telecommunications, now is that time.

First, carriers need cooperation from government officials more urgently now in order to deploy the infrastructure that will support future revenue-generating 5G wireless services. And second, there is a wide open but still largely unknown opportunity in enabling the Internet of Things that has both the public and private sectors scrambling to put their best foot forward.

In short, municipalities and private telecom operators need each other, and the sooner they figure out how to work together more effectively, the better for everyone.

Figure 2: A GE vision of future smart cities presented at the Smart Cities Connect conference in Austin A GE vision of future smart cities presented at the Smart Cities Connect conference in Austin

Interestingly, Gamino believes that working with the private telecom sector in the future might not be a case of just partnering with current incumbents. Changes in technology and changes in business models mean Gamino is expecting there to be new market entrants, disruptors that will challenge the telecom status quo.

"I can think of a few businesses," he points out, "that aren't currently in the infrastructure side of the equation but have a tremendously vested interest in it, [and] that probably have the capital to get in it, either through acquisition or just capital investment."

If new players do enter the market, Gamino will be happy to work with them. His goal is to form the best partnerships he can for the city and to design solutions that benefit both public citizens and private industry.

Next page: The role of local governments

The role of local governments
The idea that municipalities should be involved in telecom deployments is nothing new. This is why franchise agreements and permitting processes exist. However, the tension between the public and private sector surrounding telecom today may be at an all-time high, and that's precisely because of the massive growth opportunity ahead. Telecom carriers are butting up against long review times for the permits they need to install equipment, and they say that the fees some municipalities charge for accessing public rights of way are onerous.

Nowhere is the conflict between local governments and the telecom industry more evident than at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , where currently the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) is debating just how much power municipalities should be allowed to wield. Many commercial representatives on the BDAC want to follow the lead of states like Texas and Ohio that have imposed regulations on how cities must process telecom permitting requests and how much they're allowed to charge for access to public property. This is a major issue in small cell and future 5G deployments. (See Battle Begins for Small Cells, Smart Cities.)

Figure 3: BDAC members meet to discuss broadband deployment at the FCC BDAC members meet to discuss broadband deployment at the FCC

City representatives, however, have countered that argument saying that by allowing operators unfettered access to public assets, they give up any opportunity to negotiate for digital inclusion initiatives and forfeit potential revenue that could be reinvested back into telecom and IoT projects. (See Cities Slam FCC on Broadband Proceedings.)

Gamino also asserts that local authority is important because massive new telecom build-outs could have unintended effects on local neighborhoods, particularly because new equipment will be closer to where people live than ever before.

"I think local authority has never been more important," comments Gamino. "It's one thing if you have to address siting considerations for a hundred-foot tower on the top of a hill somewhere, and it's different when you're talking about boxes that might make noise and might have flashing lights that might be within 10 feet of someone's living room window, particularly in urban settings."

"Just the nature of the small cell deployments getting more local," Gamino adds, "because we need more of them and they need to be closer to the street surface and all of those technical architectural reasons, makes it even more important that we're very considerate of the local concerns for how that gets deployed."

For more broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.

Gamino doesn't think there can be a one-size-fits-all solution for new telecom deployments, but he does believe that his city may be able to solve some of these problems in ways that other cities can't. Unlike other communities, New York has distinct leverage in negotiating with telcos because of the sheer size of its population and its attraction as a tourist destination. This gives operators even more incentive to work with the city, and it potentially gives New York the room to create a model for working with telecom companies that might be emulated elsewhere.

"The truth is I don't think I have a choice," says Gamino. "It's not really because we are seeking out this leadership role. I think it's just the reality that we have the benefit of more resources than many cities."

"The point is that, whether we like it or not, we are likely to influence the market, and we are likely to pave the way for some other cities ... We're primarily working for eight-and-a-half million people who live in New York, and however many millions more visit, but then by extension, we're probably doing this work for hundreds of millions of people around the world."

In other words, communities globally are watching to see what New York City does next. If the Big Apple can turn smart city challenges into new opportunities, there's hope that others will be able to do the same.

As a final point, Gamino adds, "I think the secret sauce is if we can find a way to align our goals with those of the private sector, then we're going to find some magic. And I don't think it's impossible. I think we just need to have healthy relationships that lead to productive conversations. I think that's what I'm hoping for."

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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