Verizon, AT&T redraw smart city efforts

Verizon and AT&T no longer have high-profile executives dedicated to smart city operations. And both have largely folded their smart city efforts into other business units.

Specifically, Verizon's VP of Smart Communities, Mrinalini (Lani) Ingram, left the company in September, and Verizon's smart city efforts have been moved under Maggie Hallbach, head of Verizon's Public Sector State Local and Education business. Similarly, AT&T's Mike Zeto, founder and general manager of AT&T's Smart Cities and emerging IoT solutions unit, recently left the operator to take a job at Boingo. AT&T said his duties will fall under the purview of Chris Penrose, the longtime chief of AT&T's IoT business and Zeto's former boss.

To be clear, both operators – using almost the exact same language – stated that smart cities will "continue to be a key focus area."

In fact, longtime Verizon smart city executive Stefano Landi – who worked on Ingram's team – argued that the operator is "doubling down" on its smart city efforts. He said the operator is no longer focusing on broad partnerships with cities but is instead selling specific applications and services with a focus on cities' transportation and public safety departments.

So why are AT&T and Verizon retreating from smart city partnerships? It's because they're both already getting access to city infrastructure for small cells thanks to new FCC rules that went into effect last year. The rules require cities to move quickly on small cell installation requests, and prevent them from charging "excessive" fees for small cell installations. Just last month, a group of cities banded together to sue the FCC over the rules.

Nevertheless, as a result of the rules, Verizon and AT&T no longer need to ink smart city partnerships in order to get access to city-owned street lights and other infrastructure to house their small cells for 4G and 5G. Instead, they can simply leverage the FCC's new rules to quickly install the small cells they need, and they don't need to engage in any smart city agreements to do so.

Basically, they don't need to buy the cow anymore, because the milk is free.

"Carriers are not charities," explained longtime wireless industry analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. "Money never flowed from the city to the carrier" under any smart city agreements.

Instead, he explained, the operators' smart city efforts were mainly designed to provide services like connected streetlights or free public Wi-Fi in return for access to city infrastructure for small cells.

Indeed, that's exactly the kind of agreement AT&T and Verizon inked with San Jose, California, prior to the implementation of the FCC's small cell rules.

Since the FCC's small cell rules came out, neither AT&T nor Verizon has made much noise about smart cities. Instead, the carriers and their vendors have begun suing some cities they believe are not moving fast enough to implement the FCC's new small cell deployment guidelines. Small cells are critical to most operators' long-term 5G and network densification plans.

Entner pointed out that the whole smart city situation boils down to local politics. "I want to have a dumb working city first before a smart working city, as a citizen," he said, explaining that most cities are struggling with basic issues like filling potholes and repairing aging bridges and don't have any extra money to finance fancy smart-city installations like water monitoring services or traffic management systems.

"If the citizens want to have a smart city, they should vote for a tax increase" to pay for it, Entner said.

And considering American voters often reject spending proposals for schools, parks and roadways, there's little chance they'll approve a proposal that would divert taxpayer money to a smart city offering from AT&T or Verizon.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

Bobby Vassallo 3/15/2020 | 6:34:10 PM
MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE TERMS Any time you use AT&T and Smart City in the same sentence, you've already lost me.  I have seen AT&T bully their way into cities with donations and contributions, etc, but as yet I haven't seen any Smart City-related things happening.

First, to run a Smart City you need an intelligent network.  Here in Dallas, we are still plagued with DSL in some areas.  In underprivileged parts of South Dallas where help is truly needed, the very AT&T supporting this initiative is doing so in an area AT&T has had redlined for years.  The DEC (Dallas Entrepreneur Center) spearheading much of this has taken moneys from both AT&T and City of Dallas, virutally guaranteeing nothing good will come of a Smart City initiative.  The resulting expense to the taxpayers is wasted again.  

City of Dallas has no intention of building a Smart City, and major tech companies continue to flock to Austin where internet is abundant.  On behalf of our citizens, city leaders must get educated and seek professional advice instead of campaign contributions from major carriers.

Bobby Vassallo, Dallas
Mike Dano 3/13/2020 | 9:18:58 AM
Re: Update I also added comments from Verizon's Stefano Landi.
Mike Dano 3/9/2020 | 3:45:20 PM
Update I updated the article to make it clear that Penrose was Zeto's boss at AT&T.
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