Government Technology, March 4, 2014
From the thermostats on our walls to the sensors under the asphalt of our streets, digital technology – the so-called Internet of things – is pervading and infecting every aspect of our lives.
As this technology comes to cities, whether lazy suburban ones or frenetic urban centers, it is increasingly wearing the banner of “Smart Cities.” Like those other S-words and phrases, such as smart growth and sustainability, a smart city can be just about anything to anybody, and therein lies both its utility and danger. I use the term to mean the marrying of our places with the telecommunications revolution that has took hold over the last half century, including the silicon chip, the Internet, the fiber optic line and broadband networks.
Because this transformation is so broad and deep, it’s impossible to list or even dream of all the different ways we will reshape our communities, any more than we could 100 years ago name all the ways the then-new technologies of electricity or phone service would be employed. But we can list some of the ways digital technologies are being used right now. It’s sensors in sewers, face-recognizing cameras in plazas, and individual streetlights being controlled through a dial in an office at City Hall. It’s entire new cities arising out of the ground, like Songdo in South Korea or others in the Middle East.
“The old city of concrete, glass, and steel now conceals a vast underworld of computers and software,” writes Anthony M. Townsend inSmart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for the New Utopia. “Not since the laying of water mains, sewage pipes, subway tracks, telephone lines, and electrical cables over a century ago have we installed such a vast and versatile new infrastructure for controlling the physical world.”
But as wondrous as these new technologies are, we should remember an old truth: Whether it’s the silicon chip or the entire Internet, they are just tools that deliver power and possibilities to whoever wields them. So, it’s important to know and to think about who will and should control these tools. A policeman can use street cameras with facial recognition software to look for a thief, or a dictator can use them to hunt for dissidents. So far, different cities even within the same country are answering that question differently.
One clear decision point for cities and states is how much control to keep in house, and how much to give to private companies. While countless private companies are involved, three big companies, IBM, Cisco and Siemens, use the label “smart cities” in various ways, and have attracted much of the attention. They have carved out different niches, if that word can be used for anything these giant companies do.
Some cities and states already see the parallels and are installing their own fiber optic and broadband networks, and saying “No Thank You” to private companies. This is the municipal fiber movement, which can result in localities, regions or even states providing not only broadband, but telephone service, cable television and smart grids for electricity. Many are smaller towns and cities; often ones that already have a public power utility to build on.
Chattanooga has received a lot of attention for its fiber optic system run by the city agency EPB, which was created in the 1930s to supply electric power. Burlington, Vt., has a citywide fiber network that serves 16,000 households and 2,000 business, built independently of cable or other private utility companies. Other cities include Thomasville, Ga.; Spanish Fork, Utah; and Clarksville, Tenn.
History repeats itself. As happened with electric power in the early 20th century, private telecommunication companies, including giants like Comcast, are fighting to stop this movement. They apparently fear government as a competitor. They have used lawsuits to slow cities from installing or using fiber networks, and have lobbied, often successfully, state legislatures to prohibit such networks. About half of the states, including North Carolina, Texas and Minnesota, have laws that prevent or substantially impede cities from setting up their own broadband networks. (It’s as if Poland Springs or Perrier had persuaded state legislators to stop cities from creating public water systems.) The Federal Communication Commission is now discussing the possibility of stepping in to overrule these local prohibitions so that cities can proceed.
Every community should decide for themselves what the best solution is, but many state laws take that decision out of their hands,” says Christopher Mitchell, who is leading the Community Broadband Network campaign through the Institute for Local Self Reliance, in Minneapolis.