Around the world thousands of cities are looking at ways to leverage technology to improve efficiency and attract business — a journey that has sparked the so-called smart city movement.
On Wednesday at a Toronto conference on that theme that attracted people from across North American, Cisco Systems Inc. unveiled its latest solution for municipalities that want to boost wireless connectivity.
It’s an architecture called Cisco City Wi-Fi, an end-to-end solution that includes a series of existing wireless access points that have been ruggedized for outdoor use, new routers and switches and software that Cisco says allows the creation of broad locally-managed networks using the 802.11 standard.
“It enables cities that want to take [control of] their own destiny,” Win Elfrink, Cisco’s executive vice-president for industry solutions, told reporters.
The solution allows municipalities — or service providers they contract with — to chose to create networks to serve citizens (think of a mobile app allowing residents to report potholes or alert people when the next bus is near or tell drivers where the nearest parking spot is open), businesses, municipalities (wireless water meters attached to homes) or local infrastructure services (connecting street lights to the municipal data centre).
A number of municipalities already offer Wi-Fi services, mainly in downtowns. Some have added Wi-Fi as an adjunct to municipal buildings — like libraries — while others do it because local carriers are too slow in offering high speed broadband. But Cisco says its solution will help them deliver more than mere Internet access because it can grow to meet demand of a variety of internal and external users.
For those who leave Wi-Fi enabled on their mobile devices, Cisco says, the network could allow the collection of location-based data to give local planners an idea of where people congregate so they can better deliver services. The data also might be made available to businesses.
Stratford, Ont., mayor Dan Matheson, whose city tired of waiting for high speed broadband from the local telco and set up its own fibre optic and Wi-Fi network, joined the press conference by video from Amsterdam (where he was at a smart cities conference after speaking at the Toronto conference on Tuesday) to praise the Cisco effort.
Local Wi-Fi is a service that helps Stratford differentiate itself from other jurisdictions, he said. “The possibilities are endless.”
Asked by a reporter if a municipal Wi-Fi network would end up competing with a cellular carrier, Matheson said there’s room for both. Stratford is willing to let carriers like BellCanada use its network, he said.
If not, he added, his city has an obligation to provide its citizens with what he called “basic access.” Stratford’s Wi-Fi doesn’t directly compete with Bell in terms of speed, he also said.
But it’s secure enough, he said, for local doctors and the hospital to use it.
The Toronto conference was called Meeting of the Minds, one of a series organized by the Urban Age Institute to discuss ways of creating urban development strategies.
Sponsors included technology-related companies like Cisco [Nasdaq: CSCO], IBM Corp.[NYSE: IBM], Itron and Schneider Electric. Oracle Corp., which has smart city solutions, sent its executive director of transportation solutions.
Speakers and sessions touched on a number of topics, many technology-related such as how cities can take advantage of the Internet of things, big data, open data and 3-D printing, as well as how to encourage entrepreneurs.
Former mayor David Miller, now chair of a panel about to issue a report to the federal government on the potential for uses information and communications technologies for making a greener Canada, told the conference how Chicago used analytics from power utility data to discover poorly-insulated buildings that needed upgrading.
Governments need to learn how to use the IT revolution to lower greenhouses gases, he said.
Not all the solutions discussed were IT-related. For example, IBM funds a Smarter Cities Challenge which offers to send a team of its staffers to a municipality to help solve a problem.
One of the winners this year was the city of Waterloo, Ont., which wants advice revitalizing a neighborhood that has become troubled. In an interview mayor Brenda Halloran, who spoke at the conference, said the city isn’t necessarily looking for a technology solution.
On the other hand last year the city of Burnaby, B.C. was selected for its efforts to find a data-driven way to make investments in facilities like parks and community centres to help early childhood development.
City councillor Bruce Hayne, who also spoke at the conference, said council often makes decision based on “squeeky wheels.”
IBM came up with a series of recommendations including the creation of datasets from a number of sources — such as the province, the University of British Columbia and the United Way — to help give the city make decisions.