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 address local problems or improve city services. Such applications include apps to help public officials estimate coastal storm surge in North Carolina, monitor urban air quality in Chicago, and optimize public transit in San Francisco. Successful projects are made available at no cost to all 25 participating cities in a “smart cities app store” managed by U.S. Ignite.

U.S. Ignite describes the five-month competition that is just beginning as a “reverse pitch hackathon” because local community leaders (instead of software developers) set the agenda for the kind of gigabit applications that are needed.  Eight smart gigabit communities are participating in the hackathon, and the needs vary in each region. In San Diego, teams are being asked to develop gigabit applications in four areas: public safety; wireless healthcare; climate action (i.e. energy efficiency and sustainability); and city permitting and registration.

“Our focus as it relates to the smart cities conversation is around energy use and energy conservation,” said Jason Anderson of Cleantech San Diego, a membership trade organization focused on local cleantech industries and technologies. “It’s really been about whether we can work together to advance the goals of San Diego’s climate action plan.”

“This is one of the few federal programs I’ve seen that is truly driving innovation,” said Darin Andersen, the founder and chairman of CyberTech, a membership group providing networking, resources, and programs focused on cybersecurity, Internet of Things, and related technologies. “What struck me about this opportunity with the NSF is that the government is getting involved at the grassroots level, and local government is key.

“No one raises a magic wand, and says, ‘OK, you’re a smart city,’ ” Andersen added. “If you ask, ‘How do you build a smart city?’ Well, you start with smart projects.”

Following the hackathon kickoff on Feb. 15, teams are expected to gather for weekly hackathon meetups to develop their applications as well as business plans. Entries will be judged at a “pitch night” on March 15, with judging based on the use of gigabit technology, marketing focus, presentation, and funding strategies. The winning team will be awarded a $10,000 top prize, and an expenses-paid trip to U.S. Ignite’s annual National Smart Cities Conference & Expo in Kansas City, MO, at the end of March.

The San Diego series will continue through June 15, coinciding with the close of San Diego Startup Week, with the opportunity to win additional prizes and an expenses-paid trip to the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in mid-November.

To support the program, CyberTech’s Andersen said Cox Communications, the nation’s third-largest cable TV and Internet service provider, has agreed to provide about $250,000 over three years. Andersen estimates in-kind contributions and other types of corporate assistance could amount to as much as $250,000 in equivalent support.

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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