Smart Cities Initiative Spurs “Gigabit Apps” for Next-Gen Internet

In late 2015, the National Science Foundation awarded a $6 million grant to the non-profit organization U.S. Ignite to help drive the development of next-generation “gigabit applications,” as part of a broader effort to create “smart gigabit communities” throughout the U.S.

The idea was to both help cities improve local services and spur the development of something that didn’t really exist at the time—a nationwide infrastructure of ultra high-speed networks providing Internet service at speeds of 1 gigabit/second. Since then, U.S. Ignite has selected 25 cities to participate in the three-year program, including Madison, WI; Flint, MI; Austin, TX; San Francisco; and San Diego.

Although Google embarked on a much-publicized effort to create “Google Fiber” communities, beginning in 2011 with Kansas City, the initiative faltered in late 2016 when Google Fiber “paused” in its planned expansion. As Ars Technica explained at the time, “Google Fiber apparently has not hit its subscriber goals, and fiber construction is a costly endeavor.”

With the U.S. Ignite initiative, the NSF is providing modest incentives to encourage the development of  “smart city” applications to help solve municipal problems—and perhaps create the kind of demand for gigabit infrastructure that private industry would need to justify the cost of building ultra high-speed networks. As U.S. Ignite executive director William Wallace noted in 2015, “Building a critical mass of communities with next-generation Internet capabilities will have ripple effects: if networks are fast, reliable and widely available, companies produce more capable applications to run on those networks, which in turn brings new users online and increases use among those who already subscribe to broadband services.”

In San Diego, this initiative is now beginning to bear fruit with the recent kickoff of a five-month hackathon offering $10,000 or more in cash prizes for teams to develop gigabit applications that address specific regional needs. To oversee this process, U.S. Ignite selected two San Diego non-profit organizations, Cleantech San Diego and CyberTech, to serve as “innovation partners” with the City of San Diego.

A panel discussion at kickoff of Reverse Pitch Hackathon in San Diego, part of U.S. Ignite’s Smart Gigabit Communities initiative. (CyberTech photo used with permission)

David Graham, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, has been a key figure behind the San Diego effort. He said one goal is creating a citywide Internet of Things (IoT) platform, which  includes a project to install sensor-laden LED street lights and integrating traffic lights into a digital network. Another goal is establishing San Diego as a “2030 District,” where commercial building owners agree to a 50 percent reduction in energy and water use, and where transportation emissions are likewise cut in half.

“The mayor has set a tone of trying to be an innovative city,” Graham said of San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer. “From my perspective, this is the sort of approach the city needs to take.”

Under the three-year Smart Gigabit Communities program, each of the participating cities is expected to develop two “gigabit applications” a year to … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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