Weighing the politics of smart city tech

LAS VEGAS -- AT&T's heavy focus on smart city Internet of Things technology comes with some weighty political overtones, including how taxpayers and voters will react.

The topic of voter consent with Internet of Things rollouts arose Tuesday during a panel discussion during the AT&T Developer Summit. It featured the mayor of Atlanta, an FCC commissioner and the CEOs of Intel and Ericsson. The event is held annually prior to the opening of CES and attracts hundreds of developers.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said companies like AT&T, Ericsson and Intel have to introduce smart technology to mayors and city councils in ways that can help elected officials get re-elected. He suggested that smart city tech vendors open their meetings with city officials by saying, "What I will tell you isn't going to get you beat" in the next election.

Reed's remark drew laughter from the crowd of developers, as did his insight that city mayors and councils, not federal officials, must be the crucibles for smart tech rollouts.

"In Atlanta, you need me and eight votes [on the council]. You should meet with me rather than go to Washington," he said.

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was also on the panel, and perked up at Reed's remark. After Reed said it was more important for vendors to go to cities than Washington with tech ideas, he told the FCC commissioner, "I meant that in a loving way."

But Reed's frankness came with an important kernel of truth about the private-public partnerships that must evolve with Internet of Things tech. AT&T announced it is working with Atlanta as well as Chicago and Dallas on smart city innovations that would give cities a more comprehensive look at power failures, water leaks and traffic, among other things.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis, said cities that invest in smart city projects will have to weigh the benefits of adding sensors to water and sewer lines and streetlights -- among other infrastructure -- compared to spending public funds on social problems like helping the homeless and drug addicted in their communities.

"It's really a hard question of whether you focus on the homeless and drug addicted in a city, so you have to ask what is the priority for opening up parking spaces for the rich" with a smart app that relies on video sensors focused on parking areas, O'Donnell said in an interview in after the panel discussion.

The biggest questions city mayors will face is how smart city elements are paid for, including how much taxpayers will be dinged, O'Donnell added. While tech vendors might be willing to do upfront smart city projects to seed the technology, they will surely expect a payoff in coming years.

"These vendors are not going to give it up for free," he added.

Another big question for elected city leaders is how citizens might react to video sensors being installed to monitor traffic and crowds, which could raise privacy concerns.

AT&T Mobility CEO Glenn Lurie said in an interview after the panel concluded that city deliberations about privacy and how data is used should be upfront and that the technology used for city projects should be designed to protect privacy. AT&T's position is similar to most other vendors: it says that customers must opt-in to have their data shared, as in an app that tracks a person's location, and that data gathered will be anonymized if shared with third parties.

"Our number one job is cybersecurity," Lurie said. "We've been forthright about what our [privacy] policies are."

Lurie said that working with mayors on smart city tech won't be much different than approaching car companies for LTE wireless connections. On Tuesday, AT&T said it had reached a multi-year deal with Ford to be the exclusive LTE provider to new U.S. and Canadian cars, which will reach 10 million vehicles by 2020. The carrier now works with nine of 15 major car companies to provide wireless connections.

In all, AT&T signed 300 deals with companies for Internet of Things technology in the past year, and supports 25 million connected devices.

Red Bull is already using 3G wireless from AT&T and Wi-Fi to connect 200,000 drink coolers to monitor their location, temperature and other performance characteristics, Red Bull officials announced at the summit. Red Bull used AT&T's M2X Data Service, announced one year ago, to help build the cooler monitoring application.

AT&T Mobile and Business CEO Ralph de la Vega told developers in his morning address that "very few in the industry have near these assets."

"We're just scratching the surface of what we can do in the space," Lurie said. He noted that research firm Gartner and network-equipment company Cisco have predicted there will be 50 billion connected-IoT devices by 2020. That represents a "massive" $1.5 trillion financial opportunity by 2020, Lurie added.

Rosenworcel, the FCC commissioner, said she favors expanding the available wireless spectrum for commercial and industrial markets to "decrease the cost of access," which will increase city officials' interest in experimenting with smart tech.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich joined Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg in describing ways their companies support IoT technology that can be used affordably by cities. Vestberg showed a plastic device produced by a 3D printer that can be used to incorporate sensors that monitor water pressure and contaminants.

Vestberg also predicted that smart city technologies could reduce carbon emissions by half by 2030, an amount equal to the carbon footprint of both Europe and the U.S. today.

"The planet has scarce resources," Vestberg said. "I see this [smart city tech] as a must."


Matt Hamblen

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