Infrastructure of things (Shutterstock image)

The infrastructure of things

President  Donald Trump has promised to invest $1 trillion to upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and stimulate what some argue has been an economy on the brink of stagnation.  

Although the funds are targeted to slow the erosion of bridges and highways, they might also  be tapped to pay for networks, computers and upgrading  aging IT systems -- especially if such tech is devoted to adding intelligence to city infrastructure.

Today’s smart cities integrate IT with traditional infrastructure, delivering solutions – such as smart water meters that detect leaks and foster water conservation or bridges with embedded sensors that can monitor stress on girders and track water quality -- that enhance analog solutions with digital efficiency.

“Such smart infrastructure is likely to have bigger productivity payoffs than simply pouring more concrete or laying pipe,” the Information Technology Innovation Foundation wrote in a January report.

Building smart infrastructure requires robust broadband as well as development of tools and applications that harness new technologies. That’s especially true in the transportation realm, where Internet of Things technologies are being tested in reinventing city transportation systems.

“America’s broadband networks are no longer merely the vital link binding our businesses, communities and families, they also have become the indispensable welding tool required to safeguard, optimize and future-proof our nation’s infrastructure,” said Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, an association of telecom industry suppliers.

Broadband as infrastructure

West Virginia’s lack of broadband network infrastructure affects 74 percent of its residents in rural areas, a technology void that is jeopardizing the state’s ability to grow its economy, according to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va).

“West Virginia needs to grow and diversify its overall economy, and internet access is fundamental to that transition,” Capito wrote in a December letter to Trump, adding that “broadband can revolutionize rural communities by linking them to the national, and even the global, economy.

Because the technology is a springboard for economic growth, “the same smart government policies … outlined for our nation’s pipelines and highways should be applied to robust broadband deployment,” she said.

To expand access to broadband, Capito advocated reducing barriers to infrastructure investment, streamlining regulations for wireless providers and encouraging public-private partnerships.

Capito is not alone. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s annual state of the state address addressed infrastructure improvement for both roads and technology. “We need a comprehensive focus on infrastructure that supports not just transportation, but also broadband, education, healthcare, and our environment,” he said. Hickenlooper announced the creation of a broadband office to help the state get to 100 percent coverage by 2020.

Wilbur Ross, Trump's pick to be the new Commerce Department secretary, echoed that sentiment in his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing. "Broadband is a path to the future," he said, and   "a very essential component of economic policy, altogether, including the infrastructure component."

Smartest city

For a model of how to build and leverage a broadband infrastructure, cities and states might look to Columbus, Ohio, which won the Transportation Department’s 2016 Smart City Challenge.

The city proposed a wide variety of integrated technologies in its winning bid, including connected traffic signals, smart street lighting, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, autonomous buses, free Wi-Fi and an integrated transportation data system.

That data system supports such applications as a multi-modal trip planning application, a common payment system for all transportation modes and a smartphone application for assistance to persons with disabilities.

Many of these smart features depend on high-speed broadband, and Columbus has a foundational  infrastructure that includes:

  • 600 miles of city-owned fiber.
  • The main data center for the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet), the state’s 2,240 mile-long fiber backbone connecting education, healthcare, public broadcasting, and government communities.
  • The Ohio Supercomputer Center, a statewide resource that provides supercomputing services and expertise to university researchers as well as Ohio industries.
  • Columbus FiberNet, a 70-mile underground fiber conduit system circling the city of Columbus that allows broadband providers to lay fiber optic cable without the expense of installing ductwork in the public right of way. The city of Columbus uses the duct system for its network between buildings, traffic signals and other municipal facilities.

According to OARnet, Ohio has more fiber optical broadband installed per capita than any other state in the nation.

Funding for infrastructure

Because only one city can cash in on the $140 million Smart City Challenge funding, maintaining an emphasis on shared IT investment and collaborative projects could help other cities and states create and draw from new funding streams, according to civic advocacy groups.

Also, if policies that have driven funding toward transportation infrastructure projects have been successful, they might also be used to help locate and manage funding for smart city projects. The Federal Highway Administration, for example, already funds some intelligent transportation system deployments, which it defines as the “broad range of wireless and wire line communications-based information and electronics technologies” that integrate of advanced communications technologies into the transportation infrastructure and in vehicles.

Recent guidance suggests vehicle-to-infrastructure technology may be treated the same way. Since  “V2I deployments are essentially upgraded ITS deployments with a focus on specific V2I applications (e.g., safety, mobility, and environment),” most will qualify for similar federal-aid programs as ITS deployments. FHWA said.

Much of today’s infrastructure funding is discretely distributed across different modes -- water, transit, highways, broadband  -- so it’s “harder to find efficiencies and implement innovation,” according to a report from the Beeck Center at Georgetown University.  “The rise of distributed power systems, wireless technology and driverless cars will further strain our current way of managing and thinking about infrastructure.”

The flip side of that idea is that it may be difficult to evaluate how much IT spending is going into water or transit infrastructure projects.

“A lot of grant money from federal agencies to states are based on specific programs or projects,” said Shawn McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights, an IT market research firm. “As such, some of the money may end up being spent on an IT portion of the overall project, but it does not tend to be tracked separately as an IT grant. When states report back up to the grant provider about how the money was spent, it may include details on IT systems, but I don’t know anyone who collects all that info across agencies.”

“Keep in mind that this is what’s been happening,” McCarthy added. “But things could change under the Trump administration -- although not much will change for 2017 because the budget already has been set.”

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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