As smart cities evolve into more connected and technologically-enabled environments, how should executives prioritize regulation and data protection?
That was the focus of "Securing the Future of Mobility and Connectivity," one of many panels on the Smart Future track of this year's CES tradeshow. The room was overflowing — quite literally — with tech executives and city leaders from around the globe as a number of experts took the stage to share their insights on risk, privacy and data. Among those panelists was Lani Ingram, Verizon's Vice President of Smart Communities.
"Cities are becoming very conscious of the fact that they can't wait until after tech happens to dive in," Ingram said when asked to share her thoughts on the impact of smart innovations on local governments. Throughout the conversation, Ingram and her peers answered an abundance of questions regarding smart city security and how leaders can overcome common fears around the unknown of new technologies.
Smart Cities Dive caught up with Ingram after the session to pick her brain a little further, pressing her on competition in the telecom industry, the "race to 5G" and what "smart communities" really means.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: As the VP of Smart Communities at Verizon, what does "smart communities" mean to you?
LANI INGRAM: I called it "smart communities" for a reason. One, because we're really focused on that human impact. The goal for us is to ensure that we're building solutions that really make people's lives better. And that could be in the form of transportation or public safety or sustainability. But we really want to make sure that it's very interactive with the community.
The second thing that we're really focused on is that a community is not necessarily just a city. Sometimes a community can be an aerotropolis or a seatropolis. Sometimes some of our solutions are perfect for stadiums or perfect for developer communities or utility players. We really want to make sure that we're inclusive of all of that. Also sometimes the word cities doesn't necessarily also portray the rural side or smaller municipalities, and we want to make sure that this kind of becomes something that everyone can participate in.
We're a little different than most of Verizon in that we are a separate legal entity. We have our own kind of approach to things ... The reason that we really want to do that is it's so new of an industry and Verizon is so large, we want to make sure that we're pulling the best out of what Verizon has to offer without losing this unique kind of industry requirements that are very fragile in nature right now ... It's an industry that's evolving and we want to care for that.
We spoke to Sean Harrington [Verizon VP for City Solutions] about the rollout of Verizon's 5G home service last fall. Can you tell me a bit about what the reaction was around that and what's been going on since then?
INGRAM: People are super excited about it. We've been able to get rid of some myths that were out there on how effective the technology really is. You know, the ability for [the signal] to go through surfaces and the fact that foliage is not going to destroy the signal and all those sorts of things, once we were able to actually be live, we were able to test that out and really show how strong the technology was — and in many cases it even surpassed what we were hoping.
As we start rolling out 5G from place to place, if you think about the amount of infrastructure that we're touching of a city — the light poles, the streets that we're having to dig up to put fiber in the ground and ensure that we're giving the city the best level of infrastructure investment as possible — those are the same assets that we're going to have to touch in order to be able to ensure that the sensors are in the ground for smart cities. So what we're trying to do with the rollout of all of this is ensure that we're working with cities in a much more holistic fashion.
A lot of our approach is around public-private partnerships. How do we roll out the infrastructure, but also start looking at what they can do with it above ground ... and making sure that we're thinking through the use cases of this. It's quite a fun exercise with the rollout of 5G right now.
What is Verizon doing to ensure rural communities aren't getting left behind in the 5G rollout?
INGRAM: I think that 5G is going to be able to have benefits across the country. It's not just built for the urban environments. I think that as you start seeing some of the next cities that will get rolled out, you'll see medium-sized cities, you'll see small-sized cities that will be able to start getting that benefit. There's a myth out there that 5G's only going to be for the top cities. And clearly there is going to be a significant benefit to that, but I think Verizon's really committed to ensuring that we also are looking at those medium-sized cities and the smaller cities and trying to deploy as much as we can.
During your panel you talked about the importance of cities building regulations around emerging tech. How do you deal with cities that are hesitant to regulate or to adopt new technologies?
INGRAM: It's a hard question because every city is different so you have to approach them differently. The ones that are really getting out in front of it obviously the easiest ones to work with and they're willing to kind of open up their processes and their regulatory activities and think about it with a fresh mind, and you can co-create easily.
For the cities that are a little more risk averse to the entire thing, I would say they in general could go into two buckets: the ones that are just, "Let me wait and see. I'm not necessarily against it but I don't feel like I have the capabilities to be the first mover. So I'm going to wait for the first movers to happen and then I'm going to learn from there and then leapfrog." Very valid approach, especially depending on the amount of technical talent or the size of the city, the amount of resources they have, what other big problems they're trying to deal with at the moment. So that could make sense.
But then you've also got the other folks that are just saying, "I just don't want it to happen to me. I just don't want the technology to come in, I'm not ready. I want to stop." Those ones are going to have a little bit more of a challenge and I think they're leaning on the cities that are more ahead to help them.
If you look at Uber, it didn't stop just because a city said "I don't want Uber." It's there. Uber and Lyft were fantastic new technologies that make people's lives a lot better. But at the same time, they didn't necessarily work with the city up front. Curbside management, traffic management, all of that became a problem that had to be dealt with after the fact. So I think it's worth it for the cities, even if they are a little nervous about whether those technologies are going to happen, they're going to happen.
Look at what's happening now with e-scooters. They're everywhere. And again, curbside management, safety issues, regulatory issues ... all of those things are going to have to play in. I think whether cities like it or not, they're in it because their constituency is in and they want the services. So it'll just happen regardless.
Also during the panel, Phil Wilson [moderator] noted how, as the smart city industry evolves, it will become increasingly important for companies and organizations to differentiate themselves. What is Verizon's current approach to differentiating itself from competitors?
INGRAM: It's a really interesting time for the telecom industry. I think for the most part throughout history, all of the large telecom players in U.S. have generally gone a similar overall direction. And really for the first time in history we're seeing a pretty big departure as far as where the focus truly is.
You'll see some of our larger competitors really focusing on content and Hollywood — and that's a very valid approach, we're very involved in media as well — but they're really doubling down there. Verizon is really doubling down on what we feel is our core competency around our infrastructure. We're doubling down on 5G, on cities and the ability to truly drive an entirely elevated level of connectivity coast to coast. To the tune of what I don't think our competitors are really as focused on. And we're really putting our money where our mouth is for that ... Verizon is doubling down in this particular area around building the best infrastructure for connectivity that America has ever seen, and I think that is going to be a killer differentiator for us in the long run.
When we talked to Harrington back in September, he said Verizon is winning this 5G race. Would you agree with that?
INGRAM: Completely. 100%. In general Verizon is very conservative. When we say we've done something, we've really, really done it. And we're not rebranding anything, we're not doing something that isn't true blue 5G. We've got the equipment out there, we've got the services, people are utilizing it, we're doing though the test, the compliance, everything that goes alongside of that.
I think we are just killing it in 5G and I think you'll see that pattern continue because we are putting so much of the company's resources behind this initiative.
Moving forward, aside from 5G, what's your biggest focus for smart cities?
INGRAM: I would say there are five altogether. Public safety is a really big area for us ... We really are focused on a lot of things like gunshot detection and real-time response center and being able to do video analytics in a way that truly helps those first responders. And you put that on top of things like priority and preemption and what we're able to do with private core. And then on top of that you've got the network assets, so if a city is deploying a tremendous amount of sensors that require high bandwidth, we've got the fiber and the connectivity assets that are going to be able to help sustain that as well. So I think in the public safety area, that's one of the biggest focuses for us and smart cities in 2019.
I'd say the second runner up is mobility and transportation. We have a tremendous amount of solutions there from the safety of the intersections with our Vision Zero initiatives across the country; data that helps traffic management; solutions around parking that are just phenomenal; a lot of capabilities now with autonomous vehicles for vehicle-to-infrastructure, which is really the part of AV that my team focuses on. How do you get all those sensors that are going to be put in those sidewalks and in the streets to communicate with the vehicle to have that much safer of an experience through autonomous?
We're seeing huge progress in sustainability, which is the third effort. Especially around energy management. Our lighting control units are going to be going live here in the next quarter — that is going to be phenomenal, it seems like something so simple but the amount of technology that we've been able to build for that is really quite spectacular. So I'm really looking forward to sustainability efforts. And then of course we've got so much in digital inclusion and economic development: our smart city platform, capabilities around Wi-Fi, capabilities around integrating all the solutions to ensure we are being inclusive. Those are things that are really important to us.