Kansas City gets 'smart': New streetcar line opens amid free public Wi-Fi zone

With smart city technology, K.C. envisions autonomous vehicles, water pipe monitoring, even drones to find missing elderly

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Bennett is working with Cisco to create a single dashboard for city officials to view all kinds of disparate data from sensors and smartphones that have logged in to the free Wi-Fi or have passed by BLE beacons. A single dashboard where data is collected and depicted is considered the brass ring in smart city circles.

Bennett reports directly to both City Manager Troy Schulte and to Mayor Sly James, so he must create a dashboard that serves both masters. "The mayor prefers a dashboard with qualitative data, but I've found the city manager is looking for quantifiable data, like the electricity hours and water gallons used," Bennett said.

Free Wi-Fi's financial sustainability -- advertising

While some cities have tried and failed to provide widespread public Wi-Fi, Bennett said Kansas City's free Wi-Fi is supported by Cisco, Sprint and other private companies, and will also rely on future revenues from advertising placed on the interactive kiosks.

kansas city kiosk Kansas City Area Development Council

A man uses one of the 25 touchscreen kiosks provided in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, as part of the city's smart city project.

The Wi-Fi is part of a $20 million digital infrastructure built along the streetcar line, of which the city funded $3.8 million. The $102 million streetcar line itself was funded separately with public bonds. Bennett said the city expects to recoup its $3.8 million investment from advertising revenues over seven years. The city receives 12% of the ad profits.

Data to and from the 25 kiosks will run over the Wi-Fi network. That data will include information on city tourism sites, businesses and restaurants, as well as streetcar schedules and related information. On the lower-third of the 58-in. kiosk touchscreens, room has been left for advertising being coordinated by Smart City Media.

Sprint owns the Wi-Fi network and will aggregate and anonymize the data running over it, then give the data to the city, Bennett said. On the Wi-Fi 802.11ac network, 50% of the total bandwidth will be reserved for free use by Sprint wireless customers, while 40% will be free to customers not on the Sprint network. The free bandwidth for non-Sprint customers recently was as high as 18.3 Mbps, Bennett said.

The remaining 10% of bandwidth is reserved for a Kansas City Internet of Things channel, which is where the kiosk data will run, along with data from sensors that the city has on other objects, including 125 new smart city street lights. To save energy, the streetlights use LED lighting that is automatically dimmed to 75% of normal levels when no one is detected underneath them. Security cameras on the new streetcars will also send video data over the KC IoT channel.

Potential for 3.5 GHz wireless and drones to aid missing elderly

While free Wi-Fi is the most tangible public benefit of KC's smart city offerings, the prospects for autonomous vehicles and a smart water system could provide vital city efficiencies.

Even further out, the city could benefit from 3.5 GHz wireless to connect hard-to-reach areas, Bennett said. The city recently gave Google permission to test the service, which relies on dynamic spectrum sharing. Google Fiber made the KC area its first home, and now serves both residential and business customers.

Also down the line, there's a prospect for using drones to help find disoriented elderly people who were reported missing. The city estimates that it costs police and rescue workers $1,300 for each "silver alert" report of a resident who has wandered away from an assisted living center or other facility.

If such patients wore BLE wristbands that communicate with BLE-to-Wi-Fi routers, a missing person could be found in minutes, rather than hours, Sih said.

"Free Wi-Fi is really sexy, but where we will make an impact is in the use of data to be more reactive," Bennett said. "We are going to be a city that maintains stewardship of shared resources that people expect us to remain stewards of. "

A truly "smart" city has at least 50% of its area connected under a "sensor-empowered umbrella," Bennett said. Kansas City, with 440,000 residents, now is about 5% sensor-empowered, including all of the smartphones in the free Wi-Fi zone that act as person-carried sensors.

"I'm excited where we are going with the smart city," Bennett said. "In five years, we'll be the smartest city on Earth."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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