A fast data communication infrastructure is well under way in New Zealand, writes Bill Bennett.
Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says a by-product of New Zealand's fibre network roll-out is an opportunity to create smart cities and towns.
Smart cities are places where digital technologies are used to create better places to live and work. Sensors, intelligent networks and applications combine to connect, monitor and analyse information in order to make the city work more efficiently. This can mean making transport run smoother; providing cleaner, more efficient energy, making people safer and delivering essential government services such as health and education more effectively. At the last count there were 288 smart city projects around the world including Seoul, Glasgow and Barcelona.
Rodgers says a fast data communication infrastructure is the jumping-off point for any smart city project. That's already well under way in New Zealand in the shape of the Government-supported UltraFast Broadband (UFB) network being built by Chorus, NorthPower, Enable and Ultrafast Fibre.
He says we are now a third of the way into the project, which is scheduled to complete in 2019.
Significantly the Government committed at the project's outset to build fibre networks in 33 cities and towns. Rodgers says that's important because: "It does away with one of the barriers to creating smart cities.
"Knowing that the network will arrive and will stretch down every street gives council planners and civic leaders a degree of certainty to plan smart city initiatives. In effect the Government has taken away any doubt about whether the infrastructure and capacity will be there to deliver smart city services."
Rodgers says New Zealand is fortunate because the ultrafast broadband project was designed to make it easier to build smart cities. The UFB will cover 75 per cent of the population. By the time the network is complete, there will be fibre down every street in each of the 33 UFB areas. The goal is to connect all schools, hospitals, offices and homes: "But once it's built we can go beyond that connecting traffic lights, bus stops, wi-fi hotspots and just about anything else".
Take street lights as an example; the fibre will run past every urban street light in the country. Hooking them up to the network will cost little, digital sensors are inexpensive. Once connected the lights can be controlled so they are turned off and on when needed and used more efficiently, saving money and reducing the need for electricity. The lights will also be able to report on their condition if they fail.
Rodgers says cities can install meteorological sensors, flood warning devices and CCTV cameras wherever the might be useful. "Fibre means they can report information in real time. It also means they can move beyond basic yes-no on-off telemetry and report richer information including video. So, for example, you can install CCTV cameras to check traffic flows."
Knowing that the network will arrive and will stretch down every street gives council planners and civic leaders a degree of certainty to plan smart city initiatives - Kurt Rodgers.
There's more to creating a smart town than technology. Rodgers says leadership and public engagement are essential.
He says Chorus' Gigatown promotion has done much to stimulate the debate in towns around New Zealand: "It means people are starting to think about the social and economic benefits they would get from fibre; that's the first step to creating a smart city. There's a bottom-up groundswell effect. Some of the people involved in Gigatown are development specialists or civic leaders, but a lot are just average Joe punters and small business people who can see the potential".
Rodgers says it's still early days for New Zealand's smart cities. Christchurch is already committed to becoming a smart city as it rebuilds from the earthquakes earlier this decade, while Wellington has developed its own vision and he says some good ideas have surfaced in Auckland. However, Rodgers thinks the potential is also there in the regions.
He points to Chattanooga in Tennessee which was the inspiration for Chorus's Gigatown competition. It was a dying town before installing a city-wide fibre network.
He says young people were leaving; now it is one of the fastest-growing cities and has enjoyed economic revival.
Volkswagen recently established a new plant in the city. Rodgers thinks something similar could happen in South Island towns facing depopulation.