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Verizon Wants to Turn Fiber Networks into Citywide Sensors

A partnership between the telecommunications company and technology company NEC is looking at whether the fiber-optic networks coursing through cities can be used to glean real-world intelligence.

Vehicle counts, traffic slow-downs and other pieces of data central to traffic management may one day be gleaned from a city’s fiber-optic communications network.

Verizon and technology company NEC have been leading research into the concept of turning a fiber network into one big sensor, picking up vibrations and offering insight into the size of vehicles, their directions, speeds and more.

The telecom's fiber infrastructure, coupled with optical sensor technology and artificial intelligence software from NEC, has led to the kinds of traffic and other insights generally derived from strategically placed sensors trained to pick up this activity. The early “proof-of-concept” research by Verizon suggests this data could be collected from any point along the network.

“It’s different from most point-sensors in that I can only sense one particular spot, and I can’t really change it. Here I can measure anywhere along that fiber,” said Glenn Wellbrock, Verizon's director of Optical Transport Network Architecture, Design and Planning, in an interview with Government Technology last month.

“And we saw that we could measure not only the number of cars, but how fast they were going, and to some degree, how big they were,” said Wellbrock, explaining the early stage research process.

“We’ve taken that to our product folks and having them think more about, what can we do with this from a smart city perspective?” he added.

Verizon is planning a longer term trial to be in place by the end of the year.

“We do want to move this out to a field trial, if you will. I would call the one we did more proof-of-concept,” said Wellbrock. “We want to move it more into a trial environment. Again, more real-word data, if you will.”

“Although we are still in the trial phase for these technologies, and there still remains a great deal to be decided in terms of business models, we do see a great deal of potential,” said Joseph Jasper, manager of corporate communications at NEC.

“This unique ability to conserve roads and gather traffic information with existing fiber-optic cables promises to help municipalities to maximize the use of their financial and infrastructure resources,” Jasper added, in an email.

Other applications for the technology include supplying data for gunshot detection systems or even about failures along the electrical grid, said Wellbrock.

“The electric companies ... kind of wait for customers to call in when there’s an outage,” said Wellbrock. 

Using the fiber technology, he added, could make it easier to decipher if a transformer is out of service, due to the slight buzzing sounds the devices emit.

“We could say, at this particular location, we don’t hear it [the buzzing] anymore,” Wellbrock explained. “The transformer’s not buzzing like it’s supposed to.”

The technology could also help first responders detect and respond to auto accidents, said Jasper. 

Verizon has hundreds of thousands of fiber communications deployed across dozens of cities, and the company plans to install some 1,400 additional miles of fiber every month.

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.