As the COVID-19 pandemic set in and students and telecommuters were forced to work from home, suddenly the lack of access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet — one component of the digital divide –became more apparent. Given the heightened focus on those who did not have access to high-speed internet, in 2020 several states and cities began using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to increase broadband access.
Aimed at addressing the digital divide, in late 2020 and early 2021 the City of Dallas used data and about $5M in ARPA funds to build 20 community Wi-Fi networks to serve approximately 3,400 households with the lowest access to the internet. While each of the City of Dallas’ community Wi-Fi networks, which provide similar internet access as the City of Dallas’ libraries, used a nearby City facility as a hub, 10 of the networks used solar-powered utility poles to support radio equipment that served as wireless access points (WAPs). However, where crime data drove the decision to install and use streetlights to build out 10 of the 20 community Wi-Fi networks and to help curb crime in those neighborhoods, the networks required telecommunications fiber to be run and installed from nearby City facilities.
Innovation and Smart Cities Technologies
Learning from the development, installation, and operation of the 20 community Wi-Fi networks, since early 2021, City of Dallas, cross-departmental teams have continued to explore ways to leverage technology to move Dallas towards becoming a smart city to increase the quality of life for its residents and visitors. In mid-2021, vendors shared with City staff many possible applications for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in processes such as pavement condition assessment, traffic counts, and parking availability. In addition to the collection of infrastructure and transportation data, AI processes allow for computers to learn to detect public safety concerns such as illegal dumping and intersection takeovers by cars doing stunts.
During the AI discussions in mid-2021, and stemming from the success of using streetlights as WAPs as part of a community Wi-Fi network, City teams began exploring combination WAPs and AI-enabled cameras that could be attached to streetlights. Ultimately, the City of Dallas decided to work with a vendor to develop and implement a pilot project to address lack of access to the internet, increase public safety, and to monitor air quality.
Convergence of Data, Innovation, and Infrastructure Needs
Resulting from the 2021 discussions of combination WAPs and AI-enabled cameras to be attached to streetlights (equipment draws power from the streetlight as it plugs directly into the 7-pin NEMA socket), City of Dallas teams replicated the process of using data to identify residents with low access to the internet and overlaid that information with crime data. However, in this next iteration of project planning, City teams not only identified communities with low access to the internet and higher crime rates but also for neighborhoods that needed infrastructure improvements. The convergence of data, indicating low access to the internet, high crime, and needed infrastructure improvements, led to the development of the Red Cloud Smart Cities Pilot Project.
Planned to be operational by the end of September 2022, the Red Cloud Smart Cities Pilot Project will be Dallas’ first smart community in which all streets, alleys, and sidewalks will be replaced, new light emitting diode (LED) lights will be installed, WAPs will be installed on each of the new streetlights to provide community Wi-Fi to the neighborhood’s almost 190 homes, an environmental monitor will be installed on one of the new LED streetlights, and select WAPs within the neighborhood will also include AI-enabled cameras. As the streets, alleys, sidewalks, and streetlights have been upgraded, once the community Wi-Fi network, AI-enabled cameras, and environmental monitor are fully operational and City teams have had the opportunity to learn and test the capabilities of the new technology, the Red Cloud Neighborhood will hopefully serve as a model to replicate and scale across the City of Dallas.
Lessons Learned for Future Smart Communities
While the community and City of Dallas teams eagerly await the new technologies to become operational, looking back at the planning and implementation of projects in the Red Cloud Neighborhood, a major lesson learned included being deliberate in planning smart cities technologies as part of capital projects. Deliberate planning for the technology needs to support the smart cities applications within the Red Cloud Smart Cities Pilot Project meant, that when completing the sidewalk replacements, construction teams took advantage of the excavated sidewalk area to lay conduit to be used for the installation of telecommunications fiber to connect the community Wi-Fi network. Along the lines of deliberate planning for the technology needs in the Red Cloud project, City teams also ensured that while the new LED streetlights were constructed to meet lighting requirements, they were also designed and strategically placed to provide the mesh community Wi-Fi network.
Aside from being deliberate in the planning and implementation of smart cities technologies in capital projects, City of Dallas teams are working on other use cases for AI-enabled cameras in residential areas with speeding concerns, planning on how to meet community Wi-Fi needs in the City’s parks, and evaluating options for combination 5G poles with electrical vehicle (EV) charging stations. Although deliberate planning and implementation is vital, the most important lesson learned from implementing smart cities technologies in the City of Dallas has been to consistently encourage and empower forward-thinking team members to pursue innovative technologies and processes that continuously raise the service delivery bar.
Dr. Robert M. Perez serves as an Assistant City Manager for the City of Dallas. Robert has gained over 20 years of municipal government experience while working for the City of Dallas and the City of San Antonio and holds a Doctor of Philosophy in education with a concentration in organizational leadership, a Master of Public Administration, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in political science.