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Infrastructure Bill Could Greatly Expand Smart City Projects

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill moving through Congress has the potential to be a game-changer for cities as they consider projects in areas like broadband connectivity and other urban technology projects.

An intersection with an "AV only" lane.
A photo illustration showing a crosswalk in Peachtree Corners, Ga., where connected vehicle technology is being deployed, allowing autos equipped with the technology to communicate directly with roadside infrastructure.
Submitted Photo: Qualcomm
Urban technology advocates are closely watching the development of a major piece of infrastructure legislation as it makes its way through Congress, anticipating a rapid expansion in connectivity, electric vehicle adoption, transit improvements and more, should the measure pass.

“This is an historic bill, in terms of upgrading infrastructure, looking forward,” said Sanjeet Pandit, global head of smart cities and digital transformation at Qualcomm.

“The way I am looking at this is, it is really connecting the unconnected,” Pandit told reporters during a virtual roundtable discussion Monday. “This is going to change the landscape on the infrastructure side. Things that we normally don’t assume are connected, will be pretty much surely connected.”

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill was approved by the U.S. Senate and now needs the House to approve it as well. That path is still far from a sure thing, complicated by the bill’s companion legislation which includes a $3.5 trillion budget resolution to fund a much larger social safety net, endorsed by President Joe Biden and progressives in Congress.

The Senate approved the budget resolution last week on a purely party-line vote. However, in a sign of Washington-level maneuvering, moderate Democrats in the House are saying they will not vote for the budget resolution until the infrastructure package is approved; while progressives in the House want the $3.5 trillion budget resolution approved before they take up infrastructure.

Despite all of this back and forth, urban tech leaders say they are confident a once-in-a-generation infrastructure package will eventually come forward.

“Yeah, there could be some bumps along the road, but the road leads to some good places,” said Jim Misener, senior director of product management at Qualcomm.

The package also includes a significant broadband expansion component, popular among lawmakers of all stripes.

“I see a lot of hope in this bill passing,” said Brandon Branham, assistant city manager and chief technology officer for Peachtree Corners, Ga., who was also on the call. “Because I think our politicians know that something’s gotta be done in these areas. And so, if you’re building off of that backbone of connectivity, that’s only going to open up the opportunity for all these other aspects to come in to it.”

The time is now for cities to be thinking about what sort of urban tech projects they would like to see realized.

“The bill is one piece of paper,” remarked Pandit. “But you’ve still got to know, when you get the money, what are you going to do with that money.”

The infrastructure package could open the door to numerous new opportunities for communities to grow their smart city portfolios, said Branham, particularly via public-private partnerships and closer collaborations with other municipalities.

“We can’t do this on our own,” said Branham.

“The way governments have been operated has to change. Especially as the services we provide to our residents and businesses continue to change. As we see them evolve, they want their local government to evolve with them,” he added.

“So, finding people around you that are much smarter than you, in all these different aspects. Bringing the different partners together, to best provide direction and input on how do you build out the smart city,” said Branham.

Peachtree Corners has established itself as a leader in urban tech, namely through its publicly funded innovation campus called Curiosity Lab. In two weeks, Peachtree Corners will launch four autonomous shuttles provided by multiple manufacturers. The project will facilitate the testing of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology within the Curiosity Lab.

“And then extending that out to start connecting different parts of the area,” said Branham.
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 Yreka, Calif.