Why Santa Monica Is a Smart City Trailblazer

The city in L.A. County blazed the fiber optic trail, clearing the way for smart initiatives across the country.

September 1, 2016

3 Min Read
Santa Monica was an early investor in fiber internet.
Santa MonicaThinkstock

By Timothy Downs

While Chattanooga, Tenn., Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas, receive the bulk of the press attention for their early investment in ultra-high speed ‘gigabit’ broadbandconnectivity, Santa Monica, Calif., remains the first to break new ground in the industry. Though small in size, the city arguably did the most to launch the rapidly growing trend that is now a priority to most civic leadership teams. 

Santa Monica remains one of only a handful of municipalities to design, develop and operate a wholly owned municipal fiber network. Unlike most municipal fiber networks, Santa Monica’s network (dubbed “CityNet”) is run out of the Information Systems Department. 

The project is the 10-year effort of Jory Wolf, who, until May of this year, held the position of Chief Information Officer for the city. “More than 10 years ago we approached the incumbent carriers to request more bandwidth to our facilities,” Wolf says. “Their position was less than accommodating to our needs, so we elected to do it ourselves with a network we owned and managed.” 

In 1998 the city created a telecommunications master plan, part of which was to develop a fiber network that would serve the city, the local college and schools. The initial $530,000 investment in the fiber infrastructure ultimately yielded an ongoing savings of $700,000 per year by eliminating the need for leased lines from private providers.
The savings allowed the city to not only save money, but to also take the next step with new applications and services that leveraged the network.“ This enabled other applications. Some of them, like the 17 Wi-Fi hotspot zones in public spaces and 150 public video cameras for security purposes, would have never been possible without the fiber network,” Wolf says. 

When the city council failed to fund Wolf’s vision adequately in the early years, he worked to convince them of its importance. Ultimately he received their support and was able to reinvest the savings he created into a larger fiber-optic and wireless network that then created even more benefits. 

Santa Monica has now leveraged its network to offer additional applications and services it provides to residents and visitors of the popular beach city. The network supports parking advisory signs at all parking structures. Drivers are advised via mobile phones about the parking capacity in every structure at any time. For a city that often approaches gridlock, real-time traffic and parking information is critically important. 

“We have implemented traffic cameras throughout the city, and we are now deciding whether to make this available to the public to view over the Internet,” Wolf says. “We are also investigating wireless parking meters through Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. None of this would have been possible without the underpinnings of fiber broadband.” 

According to former FCC Commissioner Blair Levin, for cities, the trends are not just about broadband networks; they are about the next generation of broadband-led urban development. “Just as technology is transforming agriculture, retail, manufacturing, and every other sector of the economy, technology is also transforming the way our society, and particularly cities, address the mission of providing vibrant communities in which individuals and families can thrive,” he says. 

“Santa Monica is a great example of how a local government can develop a long-term vision and create significant economic benefits with low risk investments,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a proponent of municipally owned networks, says. “Without spending any new money, it built a great fiber-optic network along major streets and ultimately began generating revenue from fiber leases and operating a free Wi-Fi network in popular tourist destinations.”

Timothy Downs is co-founder of Smart Gig Media. This year, American City & Count yalong with Smart Gig Media are hosting the first Smart Gig Chicago conference on Nov. 2 and 3. For more information on the event, or to register, click here.

This article was originally published in American City & County

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