How Streetlights Are Powering More Than Just Light

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Ian Aaron, CEO, Ubicquia, talks about new opportunities that streetlights can offer cities that are looking to do more with less 

How are you helping cities become more connected?

We use a phrase, ‘you have to be a connected city to be a smart city’. We are all focused on that connectivity layer, so we built from the ground up UbiCell. It is designed and priced similar to any traditional lighting controller but in our view if it’s going to be on a streetlight for 10 years it better be able to do other things beside light control.

The standard product can handle utility grade metering. It has the same certification as a meter at a home or business, which the utility in a city, with say 20,000 lights, has a phenomenal way to meter the grid on a much more granular basis.

All of our communication modules have high vibration sensors, so for cities in Florida for example–where hurricane-strength winds can occur–you can see the movement of poles and fatigue and know when they are going to fail before they do, or you can see things like accidents.

Our communications modules have mesh WiFi, Bluetooth and Bluetooth beaconing. If you want to do things like location-based services, all of that is standard. In the Netherlands they have beacon miles where they put Bluetooth beacons on every pole. But by plugging our device into the NEMA socket, it not only controls the lights but is a beacon. We’ve recognised what cities want to do and we’ve built that into the standard product.

Do you work with the big LED providers, GE and Phillips Lighting?

Absolutely, and one example is that when cities install lights, it is very rare that they use a single vendor. There are ornamental lights, cobra head streetlights and roadway lights, tunnel lights and so on. They all have different manufacturers that are bringing to provide a lighting solution and typically it is not sold by GE or Phillips, it is sold by a lighting contractor or system integrator, a PPP provider. What’s nice about our controller is that it is universal to all LED lights, whether it is inexpensive from China or a very expensive GE version and everything in between.

Where do you fit into the AT&T smart cities alliance and conversely what are you hoping to get out of the alliance?

They are going in and providing smart city solutions and already have a partnership with GE Current for their digital infrastructure. That is this very expensive big piece of equipment that goes all around the pole. That is a multi thousand-dollar single pole solution and while that is nice for doing some things at an intersection, intersections only represent about 10 percent of poles in a city. They certainly can’t do that on every pole and they need other solutions. They also need to provide connectivity to third party sensors and cameras and do that without having to spend US$5,000 a pole. What AT&T and other partners are recognising is that we represent not only a great cost-effective solution but literally a carrier, a utility class product, that allows cities to really start growing their smart city infrastructure. Whether it is wanting to do more surveillance, or to count people or add environmental sensors. We have created a simple and cost-effective way for cities to do that at large scale.

In the US there are moves afoot that will severely limit the ability of cities to generate revenue from public right of way, including the use of streetlights and traffic lights for new 5G technologies like mobile phone receptors. How does or would that affect your Street Radio and Ubicell technology? And which side of the argument do you fall on?

It is really a quandary for the cities right now. There is legislation in Texas where attachment rights which used to be US$1,000 to US$4,000 a year may end up being US$150, so you see revenue from poles and attachment rights declining. Ridesharing is eliminating parking or reducing parking revenue, and cities fear autonomous vehicles will take a bite out of traffic ticket revenue. Cities are looking at various forces that are eating into revenue which makes it even more important to look at how to provide additional services. This includes things as simple as a beacon, to provide beacon services for commercial areas or additional services for public safety. We are all about providing a cost effective way for additional services so cities can provide higher levels of safety and opportunities for revenue.

Have you installed your products with 5G-technology at this stage?

No, and if you see AT&T’s announcement about what they are going to have with 100 cities, 5G is not commercial anywhere in the world. We finished with T-Mobile in Las Vegas the first NB1 trial–Narrowband LTE–,the firmware is all just becoming commercialised. While people are talking about 5G deployments, 5G standards aren’t even finalised and the chipsets aren’t even finalised so there are things that are approximate 5G, meaning millimetre wave. But if you are going to do 5G millimetre wave you are literally going to have something on every other pole, it’s a 100 metre radius and you really have to take a look at small cell use cases whether it is cold spots or high density areas, all of these things, there is a lot of detail around small cell deployment and all the people just screaming ‘5G, 5G’, it’s more a press release than reality

Which cities are you working with currently and do you have anymore in the pipeline?

We have installations from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Seattle, all the way to Washington DC and we are doing things in Germany and even Italy and Kazakhstan, so we have installations all over the globe. Typically we work with cities directly and primarily through partners like AT&T and system integrators like ESCOs (energy service companies) that do the audits and the evaluations from the cities.

Do you have further announcements coming up?

It’s tough because I can’t speak for AT&T and for our other partners but we have this year hundreds of thousands of units to be deployed.

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