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Sacramento, 5G and Verizon: 'Just Great Potential,' CIO Says

The close working relationship between Verizon and information technology officials in Sacramento could turn out to be a model for communities across the country as cities move forward with smart city projects and the high-capacity communications networks needed to support them.

The close working relationship between Verizon and information technology officials in Sacramento could turn out to be a model for communities across the country as cities move forward with smart city projects and the high-capacity communications networks needed to support them.

“In a traditional vendor-customer kind of relationship, you might be sitting on opposite sides of the table, trying to ensure that you’re pulling the best out of each other,” said Verizon's Lani Ingram, vice president of smart communities, sports and IoT platforms. “And I think what is really unique in the way that we approached it, is we both got on the same side of the table. And on the other side of the table we put the issues that we were trying to solve.

“And so then it became, ‘OK, so how do we enable each other?’” remarked Ingram, speaking Friday from the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento during TecNation: Sacramento, a panel discussion organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to discuss “smart cities” issues.

About two years ago, Verizon approached the city to launch a 5G, fiber-optic build-out, with Sacramento as Verizon’s first foray into launching 5G. One of the reasons Verizon chose the city as the launchpad for 5G was because of the already-established relationship and partnership, said Ingram.

“If you’re going to be able to put in a technology that has got an enormous amount of head-room for future innovation, it needs to be done in a place where you can actually co-create together, and you can innovate together,” said Ingram.

Sacramento had already begun the work of exploring smart city projects and infrastructure upgrades such as fiber-optic connectivity, said Maria MacGunigal, chief information officer of Sacramento.

“We had started some of the early work, but we were looking for a partner to do this at scale,” said MacGunigal. “And so we started those conversations and developed what I have mentioned, which is an unprecedented partnership that I haven’t seen anywhere else on this scale. It’s very comprehensive and large in scale.”

The city has already deployed some 5G sites and expects to “have scaled deployment of 5G by the end of the summer here in Sacramento,” said MacGunigal.

“We see great potential — I mean just great potential — for this technology to enable us to do so much more that we haven’t been able to do in the past,” she added. “Especially in high-speed connectivity for our network, our road networks, related to autonomous vehicles. There is so much we don’t even know yet. But we are setting ourselves up, we believe, for the future.”

One component of the project with Verizon is to place high-level connectivity at all traffic intersections. At the beginning of the partnership, about half of Sacramento’s 800 intersections were connected via fiber-optic communications, said MacGunigal.

“Part of this partnership will build out the fiber-optic connectivity of all of those intersections,” she explained.

Wireless communication technologies like 5G — which open wide the gates in terms of data capacity and speed — will be a “gamechanger” in cities as they evolve to become places for autonomous vehicles and other innovations around artificial intelligence or predictive analytics, say industry insiders.

“You hear the term ‘gamechanger’ thrown around loosely, and everything is a gamechanger. Well this really is a gamechanger,” said Steve Carlson, California government affairs counsel for CTIA, a wireless industry group. “You will see more change in the wireless industry in the next two to three years than you’ve probably seen in the last 10 to 20 years. 5G networks will be 100 times faster, support 100 times more devices, unlock real-time applications … will transform America’s industry.”

5G will support innovations in health care, connected vehicles, “and things that we haven’t even thought about yet,” said Carlson, adding that the wireless industry is projected to invest $275 billion to deploy 5G.

“5G in Sacramento, alone, is expected to create almost 5,000 jobs, investment of about $400 million, and an increase of about $750 million in GDP,” said Carlson.

But since the technology deployment is happening largely in the private sector, where government can help is by reforming regulations to allow for the installation of the small 5G communications units on devices like streetlamps, as well as reforming sometimes costly fee structures that could dampen a wide deployment of 5G network equipment, say industry insiders.

“I’ve said this to my former colleagues, and I’ll say it again: I think that’s very short-sighted,” said Kish Rajan, a former city councilman from Walnut Creek, who went on to serve as the executive director of the newly formed Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development under Gov. Jerry Brown. Rajan now serves as “chief evangelist” for CALinnovates, a technology advocacy organization.

Cities ought to be wary of insisting on expensive lease agreements with technology firms looking to deploy 5G in their communities, said Rajan.

“My view, and what I’d say to anyone who’s on a council or in local government, is, 'I understand what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve been there. And I respect that your heart’s in the right place. But don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Don’t be short-sighted and think that it’s what can we get in the near term with deploying these networks,'” he said. “'Think about the broader, bigger impacts that innovation in your community will have for the health and well-being and the quality of life in your community.' I think that’s the calculus, and I think Sacramento is a great example of the right way to go.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas for Government Technology magazine.