Smart Streetlights Are Bridging The Smart City Digital Divide Gap


Smart streetlights not only provide a platform for revenue but also improve public safety while lifting high school graduation rates in the digital divide regions

America’s digital divide, the gap that exists between those who have access to modern communications technology and those who don’t, persists. Accordingly, closing this gap is FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s top priority. And what infrastructure asset is helping to make an outsized impact? The humble yet dependable smart streetlight.

The digital divide gap represents more than a philosophical technology demarcation line. It also tends to reflect the inequalities in finances, education and social status faced by those who do not have computers and access to the internet at home versus those who do. There are many strategies city’s are using to try and address this challenge in the smart city environment, but the quiet, unsung hero, the smart streetlight,  is illuminating its power to change things, one streetlight at a time. What makes this asset such a powerful weapon in the war on the digital divide is more than the light itself. It is the wide varieties of advanced technologies being hung from the streetlight and the remarkable return on investment and social impact it produces when executed properly.

Smart City Revenue Champion

5g is going to transform cities as we know it. The ability for a city to have fully autonomous vehicles mixed in safely with autonomous public transit and pedestrians requires some seriously advanced, connected technologies working invisibly to make everything flow seamlessly.  But in order to make this urbanization dream a reality, 5g antennas and supporting infrastructure must be erected with care, oftentimes on top of the smart streetlights. 5g will require antenna placement in as dense of a deployment environment as one system every 500 meters. For cities who understand the currency they possess in the form of pole rights, conduit access and data that must be backhauled, the revenue opportunity is significant. Cities must be aware of what a good public-private partnership looks like and be willing to explore conversations with carriers with a renewed appreciation for the opportunity that exists. In some cases, neutral host, multi-carrier models can provide a foundation that is both highly productive while also managing risk. In other cases, single carrier models may present a better fit, but city officials should exercise considerable care to take the time required to evaluate their needs and the corresponding public-private partnership models that can help them achieve their financial and social impact goals.  When selecting streetlights, keep the 5g equation in mind.

Providing a Digital Equity Bridge

Digital divides create digital exclusions, and digital exclusions come with a cost. In the information-rich society that we live in, if people aren’t connected then those citizens living in the shadow of this digital divide are facing increased diminished life choices. This phenomenon exacerbates an already tenuous economic, social and political situation for these people. Smart streetlights hung with pubic-Wi-Fi, can help eliminate digital divides. According to the US Census Bureau, just 21% of households with incomes lower than $25,000 annually have a computer, tablet, smartphone and broadband internet at home. Compared to households with an income of more than $150,000, this group has an 80% penetration rate for being highly connected. Smart streetlights play a key real estate role in being able to house the infrastructure asset that helps get communities connected and online.

Shining A Light On Public Safety Improves Graduation Rates

In many communities across the United States, middle school and high school students are connected in the classroom but don’t go home to a high-speed broadband connection. For a student to turn in homework, they must have an internet connection. Without it, little homework gets done and none gets turned in. Having conducted various design-thinking driven citizen engagement workshops, Think Big Partners uncovered an unexpected dynamic. Without good streetlights in neighborhoods, homework turn in rates suffered. This wasn’t just because of reduced connectivity options. It was also because of the reduced public safety environment. In some cases, students had the desire to leave their home and walk to a community center or library in order to gain internet access. But in some cases, this journey was interrupted due to the path was deemed too perilous to travel with a Chromebook in hand that could be easily stolen during a walk in the streets without adequate lighting. Whether it was the student electing to not risk this trip or the parent preventing this trip, the homework assignment simply doesn’t reliably get done and grades suffer, ultimately jeopardizing a students ability to graduate high school. Smart streetlights, shining brightly with their LED’s and coupled with multi-sensor nodes (that also include sound and optical sensors), can make a safe multi-modal transit path for students to travel.

Choosing Smart Streetlights Carefully

Smart streetlights can transform a city and help erase the digital divide. Before making any decisions, however, cities must consider the holistic view of their smart city goals and understand that opportunity try to produce revenue, impact public safety and help address the digital divide comes with a level of responsibility to architect the right connectivity network too. Public-private partnerships can be very powerful but cities must also recognize that different needs may call for different recipes. Do not take one of the most valuable decisions lightly. We recommend consulting with vendor agnostic solution providers who can give you the best objective advice to help your city accomplish its smart city goals. LED streetlights are a powerful asset that should be respected, especially if you are wanting to make the ROI and impact within a performance-based framework in which a vendor (or multi-vendor solution stack) invests and operates the smart streetlights “as a service.”'

About Herb Sih

Herb Sih is Managing Partner for Think Big Partners, an innovation-driven firm focused on advising the world's most progressive-minded cities, companies and entrepreneurs. Herb has a deep background in advising entrepreneurs and high growth companies, accelerating innovation and helping communities solve complex problems by building smart cities and connected technologies using human-centered design principles.

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