SCWS Americas

Interview with Tony Batalla, City of San Leandro

The northern California city of San Leandro, just south of Oakland, has ambitious plans to utilize and expand its fiber optic network by integrating IoT and wireless networks as part of its smart city plans. Much of this is an extension of existing initiatives related to energy and water management, and public Wi-Fi, which bring together stakeholders from throughout the community.

Hi Tony! Thanks for talking to me today. To start with, can you tell me a bit about this Senate Bill 649 (right of way for small cell deployments in municipalities) - what's your view on this and what would be your ideal outcome?

It is certainly a controversial topic of course, and it's very active here with California cities. From what I understand this action is being introduced, in other states as well, so I expect many are watching what happens in California. The most controversial part of this bill is that at a local level, decisions will be pre-empted by the state, with a lot of authority and regulation of wireless technologies stripped from municipalities, especially around small cells and whatever 5G becomes. There are other concerns, such as the change in existing local rights and the precedent it sets. As a result, cities have come out strongly against it. San Leandro has come out against it because it undercuts our ability to regulate our own environment while at the same time artificially putting a cap on the value of city assets - it would put a fixed price per-year-per-pole in place - when in reality we don't know what that price should be yet. I'd rather see a market solution where we negotiate with carriers and figure out what a good market rate is for those poles. No one wants to put a fixed price on their assets, and we could lose a lot of money that way.

Ideally this bill will get vetoed and we can go back and work together with carriers to come up with legislation that both groups feel is a good compromise. That's a better model - partner together when we both have our interests served; that's always a better outcome for the public.

But it's not just about the value placed on street furniture and potential revenues; why else is this bill something cities are in opposition to?

Well the big part for me is the revenues. In many ways, this would be a subsidy to an industry that profits in the billions every year. Cities as well as the public have a big stake in its aesthetics, too, and what might eventually go out on the poles, how that will affect the character of the neighbourhood, the look and feel - will it be ugly  - I think there's a lot of worry that you lose control that, and will just have to put up with whatever goes up. And don't get me wrong, carriers are presenting pictures and ideas of products with innocuous designs that blend in with the environment, that look like trees and natural objects, but it's still a big thing for cities that they have a say in the design and the look - cities care very deeply about the look of their environment.

And then of course there's the safety aspect - we don't know how much weight these poles can hold, what's the proper amount - and there was actually a case in Southern California where a pole toppled over and caused a fire because it had too much stuff on it. Now that's an example where there was too much load on the pole, and too little regulation in place to protect the safety of people. And there are some people who will worry about the frequencies, and whether they'll be exposed to additional radio waves, what affect it can have on your health. Even if you don't personally think it's a concern, there is still a significant vocal group out there who are concerned, and if you just steamroll them, regardless of whether you or the science do or don't agree with them, that's never a good way to do legislation.

Ok, so once this bill has been resolved, can you tell me what you think some of the most exciting applications and opportunities of these new wireless technologies are for a city like San Leandro?

Well I think in a city like San Leandro where we have a Fiber Optics Network, an exciting opportunity for me is how can we partner with carriers to utilise that and help support the 5G rollout using our existing fiber optic network, and make it easier. This is why we need to have a good wireless policy, that allows cities to have their concerns addressed, and where the government doesn't put too much red tape in front of the carriers. Because the carriers are going to deploy 5G the same way they did with LTE and we don't really want to get in the way of that too much; but at the same time when you look at IoT networks for smart parking, or autonomous vehicles, or for traffic signalling, those could change the way you move people around cities and could change our quality of life, so I think there's tremendous opportunity there. It's a big question right now for cities who are thinking "how much of this do I start to build on my own vs. do I wait and see what the carriers do and then piggy back off them?" We don't want to go and build our own network and then the carriers come along and build one that's better, leaving us with something obsolete. But at the same time we want to experiment, and get familiar with these technologies.

One of the concerns - from an equity standpoint, like we saw with broadband - is that we don't want to create a divide of the have and have-nots, where businesses will go where the money is, and carriers will go where there subscribers are - we don't want to see our city split neighbourhood by neighbourhood where some have the capability for 5G and IoT, and things like smart parking, but then we don't have that in other sections of the neighbourhood because they didn't build it there. The economics will determine what happens and drive the decisions of the carriers, and it's something that as a city we have to keep an eye on too. How do we alleviate that from happening?

But there are a lot of great opportunities for IoT technologies and it will probably be one of the bigger transformative technologies that we see as we move towards Smart City technologies as it all depends on having a connectivity backbone.

So on this journey towards becoming a smart city, who else would you be looking to collaborate with?

We've been approached by companies from a number of different industries - from smart lighting products to driverless vehicles, and we've worked with Climatec, which is owned by Bosch, on a project to replace all the street lighting with LED lights which has an IoT network that underpins it. Paradox in Switzerland developed the technology. We've spoken to car manufacturers about their smart and autonomous vehicles, as well as shuttle companies and what the future might be like with them. I think everyone's looking at it and starting to think about it, but some of the early adopters actually have an opportunity to become influencers - that is, to influence the technology outcomes. This is a $150bn opportunity to partner with all kinds of businesses to find out what they can do, and I think smart cities are now partnering with businesses to pilot and demo these new technologies and provide feedback that will eventually influence what that technology is when it hits the market.

What kind of companies are you keen to meet? Would it be helpful to learn from other types of enterprises?

Well we're in the middle of our fiber optics master plan at the moment with a partner called Magellan Advisors, and that's looking at assessing what we already have and have been doing over the last 15 years, through the lens of smart city technologies over the next 10 years, and working out what networks and fiber optics we need to build to support that. Where do we build next, what do we need next, what should we invest in, how do we maintain it and what are our strengths and weaknesses? We kicked this process off last month and plan to speak to stakeholders across the city, such as hospitals and other large businesses, those which we call our anchor institutions, meaning that if they're on your network they're like the big anchors that support your network; their subscription on your network will carry through your operations. So we'll talk to our anchor institutions, as well as our private partner Lit San Leandro, who are the ones leasing out the dark fiber. We'll also talk to small businesses, and to businesses that aren't along the network to see where the demand is there, and we'll talk to residential stakeholders, homeowner associations, to find out what their demand is for additional broadband services. We're looking at many different opportunities. A lot of it is going to happen in the private sector too, it's not necessarily the city's responsibility to build out all the sensors for autonomous vehicles, so the manufacturers need to do that and worry about the cars travelling from San Leandro to Oakland and not breaking down because one of those cities doesn't have the network. So the question is how can we support that and partner with them to enable that and speed it up, as opposed to getting in the way, and how are our technologies complimentary; how does our public Wi-Fi compliment whatever IoT networks the carriers deploy, and not compete with or conflict with those technologies? How do we strengthen the investments we've already made, without interfering with stuff in the future?

Are there any other obstacles to deploying new technologies that you think might take effect in the future?

I think one of them will be the internal challenge for staff. We're all going to have to learn about these new technologies, and it's not just about IT anymore, everyone has to keep up with these new changes. Every department is now cloud-based and they have new applications that have to be understood and cared for and managed well in order to be effective. We, in IT, need to make sure staff throughout the organization are supported as we introduce new technologies and that they are comfortable using these new applications, like control-based systems to change the lighting on the streets, rather than just going out there to do it by hand. So, it's actually a good reflection of this technological shift that's happening where everyone is going to have become more comfortable with new technologies. And our staff is brilliant, but that's understandably going to be a challenge because it's hard to adjust to so much change, so fast.

At the same time, we're generating a lot of data and we need to become comfortable using that data, collecting it, manipulating it; and frankly that's going to be quite a big challenge all on its own! And these are quite different skill sets: managing mobile technologies to support your city infrastructure and then manipulating the data for it, and combining those to make sense out of it and achieve positive outcomes for the public. Developing and cultivating those skills is going to be a challenge for smart cities everywhere, not because we aren't up to it, but simply because these are new technologies and demand new skills and it's just plain hard.

I believe, though, that it's the transformation of the IT department from being more of a back office, support team, into a more strategic role within the organisation, and part of that is providing support for the rest of the organisation - leading this change - because you can't just throw these changes out there at a civil engineer and expect them to do it without any support and guidance. We can lead this transformation and hopefully we're achieving that.

Register today and meet Tony & many others to discuss projects like this at SCWS Americas this December!

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