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Cincinnati Seeks Developers to Create Smart City Platform With Free Wi-Fi

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Cincinnati, which last year updated its small-cell wireless facilities ordinance and released its CincyInsights portal to 15 different informational dashboards, is embarking on the creation of a smart city platform that will feature free or tiered-rate Wi-Fi for all residents. On Tuesday, March 21, City Manager Harry Black and other officials announced the Smart Cities Phase 1 Request for Qualifications (RFQ), which is aimed at identifying a team of developers to deploy Wi-Fi or “wireline” broadband throughout the city beginning along the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar route. As the document points out, it has a plethora of “ducts, conduits and access to more than 370 poles” in 3.6 miles that run through the city center from the Banks to Findlay Market.

“We want your help to lay the groundwork for a smart-city grid in Cincinnati that is useful, cost effective, and opens doors to future innovations to benefit our citizens,” officials wrote in the RFQ. The city is giving interested developers 45 days — until 12 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on May 5 — to submit their qualifications and describe their visions for what Black told Government Technology will be a “digital broadband superhighway that will have a series of on-ramps and exit ramps.” After a city-appointed selection committee reviews submissions, Black said Cincinnati will issue its RFP, likely with a 30-day deadline — and with the goal of getting a network operational this summer.

An attorney who is assisting the city with the process told Government Technology that the tight timeline may not be doable — something applicants will likely clarify — but it is intended to convey the city’s dedication and its intent to move the process forward quickly. The city manager said these next steps are essential, predicated on the idea that Cincinnati, like Louisville, Ky.; Columbus, Ohio; and other Midwestern municipalities exploring smart city concepts, is essentially competing for residents. “With the dashboards, we’re letting them touch and see their government and the work that we do,” Black said, referring to CincyInsights. “This is another way of reaching out to our various constituent groups and trying to provide value to them… The key is we have to make the Cincinnati experience a very valuable one. That people seek out.”

At the March 21 press conference, broadcast through Facebook Live, City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld noted the first-ever smart cities working group he convened recognized that peer cities are beginning to outpace Cincinnati. “While Cincinnati can absolutely excel against any competition, we can’t do it if we’re standing still,” he said. “A smart future is about everything from closing that digital divide once and for all to achieving a more data-driven government.” The councilmember highlighted public trash cans that alert the city when they’re full and traffic lights that manage vehicles in real time as examples of modern civic technology that could follow an update like citywide wireless access.

“This is not some science fiction. All of that is within our grasp and indeed some of it has already come our way,” said Sittenfeld, emphasizing that Cincinnati must update its mindset along with infrastructure. Cincinnati’s initiative, Black said, is the best, most effective path by which to pursue “a smart cities vision,” establishing the primary infrastructure needed to connect government with its customers, the city’s residents and visitors, via digital broadband. It’s envisioned as a public-private partnership between the city and a team of developers — companies, Black said, like Cisco, IBM and GTE — that will connect educational, arts and business communities, and provide a return on investments to all.

The RFQ asks developers to detail a build-out schedule; specify the city’s role, project costs and when the network would turn a profit; and “discuss how and when the profits generated from their proposed network would be shared with the city.” The network they would create is intended to stimulate commercial, noncommercial and public benefits. Broadband engineer Dr. Jonathan Kramer, an attorney at Los Angeles-based Telecom Law Firm, P.C. which is advising Cincinnati, said the project has the potential to bridge the digital divide. Cincinnati, Kramer said, can “do a very, very good job” of making public information available — but will look to its partners to bring access to “other things like navigational aids, educational aids, financial tools.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time refining the RFQ to not just do a normal type of public solicitation but to solicit, really, innovation,” Kramer said. “What we’re looking at is the next level of that service, which is the high-speed, frequent service, high utilization. Using the rail analogy, we want to bring the high-speed trains into Cincinnati. This is a great place to try out interesting ideas.”

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