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Cincinnati Building Fiber Ring, Pursuing Smart City Projects Downtown

Cincinnati is installing more than 20,000 feet of fiber communications in its central business district.

As it builds a downtown fiber network, Cincinnati is laying the foundation for improved traffic management and other smart city initiatives, as well as offering the kind of communications infrastructure necessary to further grow the region’s economic development efforts.

“I think it will make our downtown footprint that much more attractive to existing businesses, and people who want to live downtown, as well as businesses that are not currently located in Cincinnati that may say, ‘you know, because you’ve got the power there, and you’ve got the fiber, it would be advantageous for us to look at Cincinnati,’” said Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black.

The city is installing 20,000 feet of fiber-optic cable around the central business district, while also bisecting the area with another line of cable. The nearly $9 million project is structured as four separate conduits with two of those being dedicated to municipal needs and the other two available to the private sector.

“So with the other two, we’re going to build it and look for ways to monetize them,” Black explained.

The project is first an effort to modernize Cincinnati’s downtown 1970s-era traffic signal system, which still uses old, copper telephone lines.

“The fiber-ring project really started as a transportation project,” said Michael Moore, the city’s director of transportation and engineering. “Cincinnati is an older city, and we’re fairly built out. We’re fairly limited in terms of what kind of expansion opportunities we might have as far as transportation capacity. And like a lot of communities, we have what we have, and we just have to figure out how to operate it better.

“It’s kind of a longstanding goal to get all of our signal system onto the fiber so it kind of gives us some additional capacity and some flexibility, and some ability to do some things in real time that we can’t do today,” Moore added.

The new downtown fiber will connect with the city’s existing fiber connection. The project is set to begin this month and wrap up in about 15 months. Crews will dig a 30-inch trench in the street to install the ducts and cable.

The ring of fiber isn’t all that’s happening in downtown Cincinnati. The city is in the procurement process for other smart city initiatives. One project will establish a public Wi-Fi and broadband signal along the city’s downtown streetcar route. Known as the Cincinnati Bell Connector, the electric streetcar operates on a 3.6-mile route.

“We’re using that footprint to leverage it from a smart cities perspective, as it relates to broadband and Wi-Fi,” Black explained. “And it’s the underlying framework in which we can overlay, not just Wi-Fi, but also other smart technologies that can take advantage of that Wi-Fi network, such as kiosks throughout the downtown area, as well as other smart cities kinds of things.

“So, we’re coming to the end of that RFP, in which we are inquiring of the marketplace in who might be interested, and generating ideas to have a joint-venture perspective — a public-private partnership,” he added.

Cincinnati is also imploring the region’s tech community to “stretch their curiosity” to develop an app that brings together transit, parking, bike-sharing and wayfinding under one mobile, digital umbrella. 

“Basically it’s a data-aggregation effort,” said Black. “We’re going to be aggregating data from multiple different sources, including two of our regional transit systems, our Red Bike operation, our streetcar operation (and) our parking-related data. And we’re asking them to reach out to find additional data sources that we can make a part of this app aggregation effort, such as Uber, Lyft (and) Waze.”

Cities and transit agencies have often turned to tech creators to develop new and easier approaches to increase ridership on public transit by making the various transitions more seamless, such as the Hop Fastpass in Portland, Ore., a form of all-in-one account-based ticketing.

“The app is not just a trip-planning functionality. It will allow an end-user to control every aspect of a trip, such as how they might want to get there, how quickly they want to get there, what do they want to do along the way in terms of restaurants, entertainment or other civic destinations that they might want to encounter,” he said.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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