Inside the Wi-Fi project illuminating Cincinnati's 'Smart Cincy' vision
Move over, Columbus. Ohio has a new smart city on the rise.
In January 2018, the city of Cincinnati released a request for proposals (RFP) for a partner to deliver free, high-speed Wi-Fi along the city's 3.6-mile streetcar route and adjacent areas. After a search for the "most advantageous proposals from the most qualified respondents," Cincinnati wrapped up the year by launching a partnership with telecom company Cincinnati Bell to build, operate and maintain this project.
The partnership is anticipated to not only bridge a digital divide in the city, but to also help Cincinnati realize its "Smart Cincy" vision. While neighboring metro hub Columbus may have put Ohio on the smart city map, Cincinnati is entering the space with uniquely catered innovations and initiatives.
Smart Cities Dive caught up with John Putnam, Smart Cities Program Manager at Cincinnati Bell, and Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, Chair of the City Council’s Education, Innovation and Growth Committee, to learn more about the project and Cincinnati's launch into the smart city space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: What prompted the city to put out the RFP for the Wi-Fi project?
P.G. SITTENFELD: The analogy I've given ... is you can survive in today's world if you have an old-school flip phone, but it's a lot harder to navigate life. I think the analogy between smart phone and old school phone is true for a smart city versus an old-school city. If we want to stay on the cutting edge of being competitive, running government more efficiently and delivering solutions for our constituents, we have to be a smart city. Obviously the bedrock of that is having a great Wi-Fi foundation, [because] you can build all sorts of applications on top of that.
We're really excited to have this smart cities partnership inaugurated, starting with installing Wi-Fi along the downtown public transit corridor and going out from there. We're excited that it's going to serve the city — and most importantly, our constituency and partners — for a long time.
What is the project timeline and what can citizens expect?
JOHN PUTNAM: With the announcement on Dec. 7, we at Cincinnati Bell turned over some existing public Wi-Fi that we had in place to the city project. From day one, we've lit up four areas within downtown Cincinnati ... That includes where our entertainment district and professional sports stadiums are located, Fountain Square which is the center of city, Washington Park which is in the heart of a very vibrant and growing area of the city and Findlay Market. We had from day one the ability to transfer aspects to the project to allow us to become a smart city. Our build-out is to now link those four venues together along the streetcar route. We believe that should take six months to a year to build out the entire Wi-Fi network along the streetcar route.
How do you see this playing into a greater smart city plan and/or partnerships going forward?
PUTNAM: The RFP with the city stated our responsibility, that we'll light up the central business district as a visitor and resident engagement and economic development tool. We recommended to the city — and they accepted our recommendation — creating a task force that will help the city identify what those next stages will look like.
There's hundreds of smart city technologies out there. Let's create this task force and have Cincinnati Bell and the city of Cincinnati work together to identify what those smart city priorities should be. We've already identified and known from day one that bridging the digital divide is a requirement within the smart city community for the city of Cincinnati and that's something we're working on.
SITTENFELD: I would echo that. What is key to me is the quality of nimbleness. The problems we want to solve today or six months from now aren't going to be the ones we're trying to solve two years from now or five years from now. We see this partnership with Cincinnati Bell as long-term one.
When you think about the various individual things that can add up to be the totality of a smart city, they can be "whopper," important projects like bridging the digital divide so that young people aren't trying to write a term paper at home with zero connectivity and no good place to go. But also, individual things touch our constituents' day-to-day lives. [For example] do garbage cans let the Department of Public Services know when they're full? Or real-time traffic monitoring systems and... security camera applications.
"...[M]y attitude is the sky's the limit. That's what technology is all about, helping us go places we didn't necessarily think were possible before."
Councilmember, City of Cincinnati
There are already things I would put under the umbrella of smart cities that we're already doing, like if somebody wants to get online and track where the snow plow is that will be plowing their street in real time. We have a pretty extensive open-data platform, if [for example] we want to know the geographic overlay of where opioid overdoes have been happening across the city. There are things already in place but my attitude is the sky's the limit. That's what technology is all about, helping us go places we didn't necessarily think were possible before.
You mentioned the digital divide. Are you specifically considering equity when identifying the first areas to get free Wi-Fi access?
SITTENFELD: Yes, absolutely. I think treating access to the internet as a necessity instead of a "nice to have" is where the equity piece of being a smart city comes in.
We're starting with the urban core [which], especially by day, is our population center, our employment center, our tourism center. We have this asset, the streetcar, that was a logical place to start. But I think that's a starting place, not an ending place.
PUTNAM: The first phase is the economic development and engagement piece, but we look at concentric circles. Where are the disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city that could benefit most from having high-speed internet?
Everyone, when they think of the digital divide, thinks of school kids. Certainly we want to address that as a number one priority. But I think a lot of people don't realize that the digital divide has a huge effect on adults — in terms of job training, applications, as a resource for transportation and how you get to a job once you find one. Then from a financial aspect, making sure we're moving them toward healthier financial decisions and accessing benefits.
We look at that concentric circles approach and now we've got the business core, so [we're examining] where are the neighborhoods that are one step removed from the business district and how can we light those up and bridge the digital divide?
Cincinnati's neighbor, Columbus, leaped head-first into becoming a smart city after winning a $40 million Smart City Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Have you modeled Cincinnati's smart city solutions on Columbus', or any other cities'?
PUTNAM: The fact that Columbus was funded primarily with a DOT grant means that their initial focus was on transportation related issues. I think what sets us apart in Cincinnati is that the focus of our smart city solution is on social change and outcomes that will improve the city itself. It's a little different based on the funding sources. But ultimately we look at it and say we need to partner with all smart cities and create smart regions. There is much to be gained by those partnerships in terms of sharing resources and knowledge.
SITTENFELD: The single biggest thing that their winning the federal smart cities grant did was help light a flame under the rear ends of Cincinnati leaders. There's no reason that our friend and neighbor 100 miles north should be winning this and we shouldn't be, so really let's try and come up with a more coordinated approach. And as much as anything, getting stakeholders together and putting together a blueprint is what led to us issuing the RFP.
In terms of other cities, to me it's more of an à la carte approach. I don't think we're trying to be San Francisco or Columbus or Austin, TX or Boston. But fortunately we live in a connected world so if another city has a good idea we can see how that would work in terms of implementing it in Cincinnati. ... We try to pull in the best of what's going on in cities across the country.
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