KC's smart city 'Goldilocks' project bounds ahead

Cisco and, possibly Sprint, to offer free Wi-Fi, video sensors along new streetcar line

Kansas City, Missouri

The largest smart city project in North America is moving closer to reality in Kansas City, Mo., mainly along a 2.2-mile streetcar line under construction through the downtown.

The Kansas City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to direct its city manager to finalize a contract with Cisco and its partners to provide an array of video sensors, free public Wi-Fi, 25 interactive digital community information kiosks, smart lighting and other elements.

The city is expected to invest $3.7 million and Cisco and partners another $12 million over the next 10 years, according to the approved city ordinance and other documents.

Meanwhile, after weeks of rumors and speculation, Sprint said Friday that it is looking into working with the city on the project and is "excited about the possibility." Sprint's possible role could be as part of the planned Wi-Fi network, but it isn't yet publicly defined.

Some analysts have speculated that Sprint will use its connection with Google's Project Fi to enhance connections between Wi-Fi and cellular networks along the streetcar line.

Sprint, the nation's third-largest wireless carrier, is based nearby in Overland Park, Kans., and has a Sprint Accelerator building -- to foster tech startups -- in the Crossroads Arts District adjacent to the streetcar route. Google, meanwhile, has used the Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., area as its premier Google Fiber city in the nation.

A city spokesman said the smart city contract should be finalized in another week. Kansas City Mayor Sly James supported the ordinance authorizing the contract and planned to attend a Friday night opening of the first streetcar station on the new line. The $102 million streetcar line (which does not include the $15 million for the smart city project) is expected to be open to the public in early 2016, offering free rides to tourists, residents and workers.

Cisco said it is awaiting the final smart city contract before commenting, but first announced the concept nearly a year ago.

Late last year, Isaiah Blackburn, Cisco's chief strategist for the KC project, said Cisco's intent is to create a single technology platform or foundation to "enable multiple applications to talk to each other." Doing so will require centralized management software.

"Once we build the initial foundation, any app can leverage it," Blackburn said at the time.

He also said the KC project will be one of the first cities where video will be used as a sensor that can be connected to an automated system for multiple purposes, including judging the depth of snow accummulation to help plowing activities and watching that pedestrians aren't walking in front of streetcars.

Cisco chose to work with Kansas City because it is "in the Goldilocks zone," Blackburn said, explaining that it is "not too big and not too small" an urban center and has "lots of momentum with tech and tech companies." The project's size will help Cisco learn how it can scale up to provide larger cities with smart city innovations.

Blackburn also said Cisco is sensitive to ways that video sensors might be seen as invasive public surveillance. "For any privacy issues, we'll comply with state and federal regulations and won't give access to software developers to anything they shouldn't have access to," he said.

Part of the city's ordinance includes creation of a Living Lab for Internet of Things innovations where developers can work together in an open office environment. Living Lab is a joint proposal by Cisco and Think Big Partners, which both operate in a recently renovated historic building along the streetcar line.

Herb Sih, co-founder of Think Big, said in an interview that Cisco's unified networking approach to the KC project makes the most sense. "This is really about building a platform for multiple vendors and carriers and verticals with a single interoperable technology," he said. "That's the key to the Internet of Things. Keeping things interoperable is where the rubber meets the road."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at ZK Research and a longtime Cisco observer, said the networking provider has taken an architectural, foundational approach to connecting the Internet of Things, which Cisco has dubbed the Internet of Everything.

"You can call what Cisco does a platform or a foundation, but that makes a lot of sense for IoT," Kerravala said. "Cisco has done more work in this space than any other vendor."

City governments around the globe have wrestled with finding a way to create smart connected cities without having to authorize multiple networks by multiple vendors that operate independently.

In Barcelona, Spain, smart city services were set up in recent years to help relieve parking and traffic congestion, and a big concern was how to solve a problem without creating multiple networks. "IoT is network centric and the network is what matters," he said.

Kerravala said that Barcelona's experience could offer a warning of sorts to Kansas City about recognizing the privacy concerns of individuals. At one point, Barcelona was hoping to use the smartphones of each person in the urban area as a kind of smart city sensor. For example, using their GPS and other location technologies, automated systems could determine when a big crowd showed up at a bus stop, so that more buses could be dispatched to that stop.

"For that kind of thing, you need citizen opt-in, to deal with the feelings of being monitored," Kerravala said. "If a car drives around a block three times, that can be detected as maybe somebody looking for a parking space or perhaps something else."

For smart city projects of all sizes, private and public leaders need to explain why sensors are valuable. "There needs to be a benefit, like it cuts down congestion, making it better to drive around town or providing parking," Kerravala said. "This can't be just about Big Brother."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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