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Scaling Smart City Tech Could Help Clear Regional Obstacles

San Mateo County, Calif., is set to lead a smart city project through a new IoT lab aimed at deploying the technology on a regional scale.

Traffic, parking and even garbage collecting in San Mateo County, Calif., could get more efficient and “smarter” as the county begins an earnest exploration into smart city projects that can be unfolded across the region.

"We believe that the complex issues like housing, traffic congestion, public safety don’t stop at the city borders,” said Ulysses Vinson, chief smart communities officer of San Mateo County. 

"We have some population centers that are very connected, and then we have areas where there’s very limited connectivity. So as we approach IoT, we want to approach it from a regional basis,” he added.

To explore smart city projects the county will launch a test lab in downtown Redwood City, where different approaches can be studied in “a little sandbox” that allows residents and city workers to see IoT in action. 

San Mateo County covers some 448 square miles and is home to 22 cities and 665,000 people. 

Some of San Mateo County’s challenges are bridging the digital divide between tech hubs like Menlo Park — home to Facebook — and small hamlets like Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, or even Pescadero where many residents have little access to Wi-Fi.  

It is this dichotomy that gave birth to the idea of a test lab where different technologies could be tried out, with the idea of eventually deploying them countywide.

“We’re right in the heart of Silicon Valley. But what I’ve found is that not everyone is connected,” said Vinson.

In Pescadero, for example, residents will sit in their cars on the city’s main thoroughfare to take advantage of the city’s free Wi-Fi signal because they don’t have connections at home.

“That’s why there’s a big digital inclusion piece to this, where we want to make sure that innovation makes its way through the entire county. And that everyone’s able to benefit from these new technologies that we’re talking about today,” said Vinson.

The idea to develop the IoT test lab began about a year ago.

“The mandate that I had was to come up with innovation,” said Vinson.

From that point, the county hired the smart cities consultant Strategy of Things.

“There’s a lot of small and mid-size cities that also need to get smarter,” said Renil Paramel, senior partner at the consultancy. “And the reality is that they may not have the right resources, whether financial, or skill-wise, or vision-wise to get there. And I think what San Mateo County is doing is really interesting.”

The county already has a network of 72 free public Wi-Fi hot spots, which it will leaverage toward deploying connected devices like air-quaity sensors and smart waste management technologies. But the IoT lab will also allow the county to study other newer wireless communication technologies like narrowband IoT, which uses low signal power to connect a wide range of devices.

“In the Internet of Things and smart city type of use-cases, it’s important to have not just wide coverage, but also the opportunity to be able to transfer small bits of data without spending a whole lot of money,” Paramel explained.

However, at its core the new IoT lab will aim to build collaborations among the various cities in San Mateo County as well as place every community on a more equitable digital landscape.

“I think in certain cases, some cities are definitely further along in the discussion of IoT, and we welcome that,” said Vinson. “What we want to promote here is collaboration, and let's make sure that the technology does not stop at the borders of each city."

“And we’re saying a lot of these cities have some of the same issues,” he added. “Traffic is a regional issue … pollution. Whatever the case may be. These are regional issues and it’s something that, maybe collectively, we can tackle together.” 

The IoT lab project will be presented at the Internet of Things World conference May 14-17, 2018 in Santa Clara, Calif.  

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.