February 25, 2020

Building Smart Cities at Lower Cost with Real Benefits

In this episode we get the opportunity to speak to Nick Wilcox from Giosprite. He has 30 years’ experience building and managing IT and telecom systems. He's doing some really interesting things with the Internet of Things and the LoRaONE network. We get to learn a little bit about that. He also has been working with municipalities and communities to help them understand how they can realize smart city capabilities without big city budgets. Hope you enjoy our discussion.

Pete Pizzutillo: Nick and I had a chance to meet in London when I had the opportunity to go watch the Spurs try to beat Liverpool. It didn't really work out in our favor, but that's okay. We lived to fight another day, but Nick, you and I got into the conversation around your passion, right? And your history, professional history and currently what your organization, Giosprite, is trying to champion within the UK and globally. And I thought that if you can just help us get some context to listen and understand, what is the mission that you see before you and your organization today?

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, sure. It really started when we visited Barcelona to have a look at what they were doing in the smart cities space. And one thing that was very apparent is that they were spending an awful lot of money and not showing an awful lot to the citizens at the end of it. So for example, they spent tens of millions of euros on putting fiber in, which was a great infrastructure project. But I think from the point of view of the ordinary people in the cities, they really didn't see any change as a result of that happening. And then we looked at other cities too where they were sort of vast expenses going out to create a so-called smart city. But really, by the end of it, only just getting to the starting point instead of having a completed project. And then we started talking to places like Lichfield where we're based, which is a small city of the UK.

Nick Wilcox: And we asked them, "Guys, what are you doing about being smart and smart cities?" And their view was typical, what we started to hear from all over the country, which was, "It's just too expensive for us to even consider getting started." You know, they'd seen the headline cases, they'd seen these big projects going on around the world and felt that they had no relevance locally because they were just too big. About the same time, I became interested in a new technology called LoRaONE, which we can talk about it a bit later. But I saw that this was a way in which even the smallest town or city could do some smart things at low cost and make a difference. So essentially, I built the company around the idea of how can a small city or a small town do smart things without it costing a fortune.

Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah. Great. I, I totally agree about the hype around smart cities. We've been talking about that as an industry for many years. And I think a lot of people have been just really, really intrigued with the possibilities. Some people a little scared by the possibilities as well, but waiting passively for the large technology companies or the large metropolitan areas to make the investments. And then the capabilities come much, much later. And you know, five G is one of those most recent bumps in that hype cycle about what potential it can bring.
 


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Pete Pizzutillo: But I think what was most intriguing about what you're all looking for is, the citizens shouldn't suffer, right? There's an elderly communities, there's education for young children, there's people that are looking for jobs. There's some really meaningful things that can be enabled by having more infrastructure or better infrastructure within a community the size of Lichfield or smaller, and people shouldn't wait.

Pete Pizzutillo: But not having visibility into what those alternatives are, they just were confused or just didn't know or focused on something else. So I think what's most encouraging is that you've been able to match an existing infrastructure and capability with a need and help people realize that need sooner than waiting for somebody else that to solve it or may actually never actually have the capability delivered to them. So that was the most intriguing thing.

Pete Pizzutillo: So you mentioned Lichfield, and in talking to them, you mentioned a couple of obstacles or biases out there, right? So too expensive or too much effort. Why do you think they hold that type of belief? What is it that is that they've seen or experienced or just misunderstood that make it seem like those are the major obstacles and are there any other obstacles that they're considering?

Small Cities Competing for Funding

Nick Wilcox: Sure. So in the UK, I think one of the things that creates the environment that these places work is the way they're funded. And you know, sort of the day to day expenses come out of the local taxes, but if they want to do anything different or special or large, then they have to compete with all the other local authorities in a kind of competitive bidding situation into central government to get funds. And so I think a lot of approach and attitude to smart city projects is that they see that the winners of these competitions are always the large cities who want to spend huge amounts of money. And that actually, there's very little that is granted to a relatively small place for relatively small amounts of money. So there's kind of a whole perception created, I think, by the system that makes the smaller cities think, "Well, there's no point spending three months putting through a bid, because we're not fighting to win against the bigger city down the road."

Technology Knowledge Gap and Lack of Benefit Understanding

Nick Wilcox: I think the second problem that we face is one of just simply knowledge. So, local authorities are very good at the job too, and broadly, that's split across transport, social care, housing and so on. And they do those things very well, but they're not technology organizations and they're not ahead of what is going on in the world from a technology perspective. So that they don't really have the mindset that says, "What's available now? What can we do now? You know, it's interesting that you mentioned 5G as an example. 5G is a wonderful technology. We're just starting to see some small roll outs of it in the UK. And I'm sure when it finally appears, it will be a wonderful thing.

Nick Wilcox: But you know, there's places around our district that can't even get 3G today. So, there are places where 5G will go and will work. Hey, guess what? That's going to be the largest cities first for economic reason. And so places like Lichfield and the rural areas surrounding it, they're not going to see if 5G for perhaps another 10, 15 or even 20 years. So I think there's a combination of things. We've got the kind of the funding environment with the technical capability and knowledge. And we've got, I guess just a culture of, "Well, it doesn't happen here." Lichfield is particularly historic city as you've seen when you visited. And there's also I think kind of a resistance to modern stuff, which also comes into play. You know, we struggled to get electricity there. I think when that first came out, and mains water, we look forward to in the future. No, I'm only joking. Sorry.

Pete Pizzutillo: No, that's interesting. I mean certainly the cultural aspects of communities, in terms of prioritization, what's most important to them. And as connected communities and smart cities are still kind of ethereal until they become more tangible. I think people don't know that they would need them. But when you start breaking them down into some of the examples that we'll talk about around tele-health or distance learning or participating in the digital economy. I mean if you think about online banking, it's ubiquitous now. And if you don't have a mobile phone, potentially you can participate in a digital account economy. And that's why it's interesting you see large companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google investing in that infrastructure, because there's a big portion of their market that doesn't have access to their products. So that's their motivation. But as that becomes more visible, I think you'll start getting more of the support and the points that you made about the UK, I would echo in the US as well.

Pete Pizzutillo: That there is a funding challenge. The government has been investing, the US government has been investing in rural funding, but again it is a competitive environment and you need to be the right size and have the right knowledge to be able to access that funding. And the similar thing beyond the knowledge point, not knowing just how to deploy these types of systems, but how to support them. I mean you're not talking about trash trucks and water mains and that kind of stuff. You're talking about internet access and servicing when people have issues with their connectivity or poor performance. I mean that's a whole other skill set that a small community, how many hats can one person wear? So that's a challenge there too. So having a systems that are affordable and sustainable I think are important. And so that kind of brings me back to the technology that you have identified around LoRaONE. So before we dig into that, can you just help me understand what it is and, and why you saw it as an opportunity for this problem?

Solving Small City Problems without Huge Investments

Nick Wilcox: Yes. So I guess the starting points for this is saying that technology should not be the driver for a city to be smart. And you know, I think we've all seen many examples of where technology seems to exist purely for the sake of the technology. We have one city here that has interactive garbage bins who will talk to you, which I'm sure is very exciting and interesting. But you know, what is it for?

Nick Wilcox: So, we need to sort of start with the need. What is the problem that they're trying to solve? And I think one of the things that I saw with the LoRaONE stuff was, it was a way to enable things to happen without huge infrastructure investment. So if you imagine for example, you have loads of sensors taking readings of things or you have devices that are measuring or interacting in some way, how do you connect those up in a way that doesn't involve digging up streets or rolling out a very expensive 5G network or indeed putting SIM cards into every device. And this is where I saw the LoRaONE could be an enabler of things that could be done. So the conversations from that point then went along with the municipalities to really discuss the challenges that they had and what they were trying to address. And it's from the problems that they talked to us about that we've come up with the technology we'll be using today.


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Long Range and Low Power Transmission (LaRaOne) - Fewer Devices and Lower Cost

Nick Wilcox: So LoRaONE essentially is a technology that is spun out of the move from analog TV to digital TV. So when the analog TV network was switched off, it freed up a certain amount of bandwidth that could be used for other purposes. Some of the features of that bandwidth are, that is very long range. So if you think of traditional over the air TV services, you would have one transmitter covering many, many, many square miles. So it gives us a long range transmission.

Nick Wilcox: The other key thing about it is that it's a low power transmission. So we don't need lots of energy in order to be able to get things talking. Now what does that mean in practical terms? It means that we can install the LoRaONE base station that will cover a distance, we'll say 10 kilometers, where a traditional mobile network will cover perhaps a kilometer or even less in a city. And of course, you could then also look at things like WiFi, which you talk about in a hundred meters, or you look at Bluetooth, where you talk about a few meters. The fact that we can get signal over huge distances using low power, and therefore we need fewer base stations, and those base stations are low cost suddenly means that we can connect all these different pieces that we need to deliver smart technology into cities.

Pete Pizzutillo: So that's interesting. I mean, so the converse of a 5G, right? Ultra-high band where you need fiber and power and you have transmission ranges of 700 feet, perhaps. The existing infrastructure that used to be how we all watched TV back in the day is very low power and in very long range. And I think it's really interesting that there's not one technology that rules them all. And I think that's interesting about 5G in terms of a terminology because you know, 5G is the fifth generation of wireless mobile. But it's really, it isn't the complete evolution. That they, we need these different solutions to solve different problems across the different geological or geographical areas.

Pete Pizzutillo: So 5G may never come to rural areas, but there's existing infrastructure that's already there. So I think what you've identified as an interesting path of helping these communities understand that, "Don't believe the hype. It's going to work and fit where it makes sense." But where it doesn't make sense, there's existing capability today and here's how we access that. Does that make sense?

5G Not Required – Solving Every Day Small City Problems with LoRaOne

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And you know, I'm not knocking 5G by any means. It's a different tool for a different purpose. I mean 5G will deliver the benefits of very high speed, very large volumes of data. So you know, there's all kinds of applications that that will be fantastic for. But if you consider the kind of everyday problems that you need to solve in a municipality, then shifting huge amounts of data around the place, you might have, for example, a device that is simply taking a temperature reading once an hour. It's a tiny, tiny piece of data and it doesn't require the sort of 5G infrastructure to be able to transmit that tiny piece of data from one place to another. I think LoRaONE is hugely transformational in a lot of use cases where we can make a difference.

Pete Pizzutillo: So that's interesting. And so you kind of jumped cognitively there for the listener. And when we're talking about connectivity, most people are thinking about watching Netflix or dialing into the internet to surf. But what you're mentioning is another application. So when we talk about smart cities, this is not simply broadband access, this is connecting devices and things. And one of the things that you've mentioned so far is a sensor. Can you just explain how you see that as a use case and what the value to a small town might be?

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, I can give loads of examples, but let's take a very simplistic one. In the winter here in the UK, we throw a lot of salts and grit on the roads whenever there's a threat of ice or snow. Now generally the decision about whether to gristle a road is taken from a weather forecast that covers a regional area. And so the gritting trucks will go out and grit maybe 25 miles of road. In practice, if you could get much more granular information about what the actual weather is doing along that road, you may find that in fact, you only need to grit certain sections of it because the temperatures due to the geography are somewhat lower. So imagine a situation where you deploy a sensor, let's say every 50 yards along the highway. And as the truck drives past, the sensor talks to the truck and says, you need to grit here or you don't. So in effect, switches the grit on and off.

Nick Wilcox: The savings that you could make in terms of the amount of grit that you need to put out would be huge. And you know, at one point here in the UK, we've been importing the stuff we throw on the roads from China. So you know, you think about the cost to the environment of just getting the stuff here, it then gets thrown out on the road and of course the next bag goes or washed away into the drains and into the watercourses and so on. So if there are ways in which you can reduce that grits usage, brilliant.

Nick Wilcox: However, if you're going to deploy a sensor every 50 yards along the road, it brings challenges and costs, you need power and you need to get the data moving around. Now traditionally that would be putting cables to the device. And of course in this kind of context it would be prohibitively expensive. If we use something like LoRaONE, we can have very small, inexpensive sensors. We can use battery and solar power and we can use LoRaONE, which will provide the network coverage even if the road is going through a rural space. So that was just one kind of example of how using LoRaONE as opposed to the high bandwidth hungry products can make a real difference for projects such as that.

Pete Pizzutillo: Right. So sensing and sensors and I've been looking at some research that says we're going to hit like a trillion different sensors in the next five years or something like that. So just being able to a, connect all those sensors and power them and, and pull that data back so that they're useful. That's a lot of infrastructure to support that, and what you guys have identified is a scalable, cheaper way to do that. I remember you, you told us about the sensors in the apartment buildings so that the public service folks can take readings without bothering the residents to understand moisture levels or smoke levels. So safety impact around that. You also mentioned a couple ideas around communication, helping communities communicate to each other. Do you have a, can you just kind of walk us through one of your favorites there?

Smart Small Cities, Smart Buildings – Environment Measurement Using LoRaOne

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, sure. So actually, that's linked to what you were just talking about with the environment sensing. So imagine that you have a building, a tenement, and you've got 50, 100 tenants in that, but they're all elderly and they're all in some way needing some kind of support. The environment they live in is quite important. Damp can cause damage to the fabric of property. It can also have impacts on their health. Now using LoRaONE, it's quite easy for us to measure the environment, damp in the walls, the temperature, the humidity and so on. And using LoRaONE, we can get that data back very easily. And you know what? In this case, we don't have to rely on the tenant having an internet connection or WiFi, which in many cases they don't. But it would be nice wouldn't it, if we could actually interact with the tenant and say, "Hey, do you know what? You've got the tumble dryer on. You need to open a window." for example.

Smart Small City Communication & Information – Digital Signage & Alerts with LoRaOne

Nick Wilcox: Okay. The, the kind of current thinking from all the bright young things that are around today is, "Oh, that's simple. We'll design an app for that." But hey, hang on. These people don't have internet access, they don't have smart phones. They certainly don't understand how to use an app. So we've created a digital sign that can work in conjunction with LoRaONE and the sensors in order to provide that customer feedback where an app simply isn't the answer. You know, there isn't an app will meet that need.

Nick Wilcox: And that's kind of an exciting project for us, because that's spun off into all kinds of other areas. For example, actually things like a rural bus stop signs, you know what time the next bus is coming and providing some real time information there when normally you wouldn't see those kinds of signs in a rural location because of our two normal problems. How do we get power to it, and how do we get the data? So we're using LoRaONE the other way round in this instance because we can push data to those things over that LoRaONE network so that people in the countryside can enjoy the same real time information as their family in the cities might.

Pete Pizzutillo: That's great. Those are two great examples. Because here, we started the conversation around the hype and not understanding the technology. But really, they're pretty mundane examples that you're showing, but fundamental. Helping people get around transportation, elderly folks that don't have cell phones and trying to figure out when they need to get to the doctor and public transportation to help them. Everybody can understand the value of that, of having to drive somebody around or get that ride. Safety, environmental safety within your own home or in a multi development unit or dwelling unit. So taking, you've done a great job of explaining this kind of high, high level concept of smart cities and technology and saying, "Look, here's a way we can start doing this and adding value to your citizens today." So thank you for that. And, and I guess that kind of leads into my next question is, so what is your approach? You, you're talking to a lot of these folks that are either city managers or economic development folks within municipalities. How do you help them work through this process? What some of your recommendations there?

Improving the Quality of Life for Small City Citizens with Smart Lower Cost Solutions

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, so simply I think we say to them, "Don't attempt to rebuild the world in one go. Look at where the pain points are. Where are the pressures? Where are you struggling to fund the services that you need to fund? Let's have a look at ways in which we can use technology to bring the cost of delivering those services down or improve the quality of life for the citizens." Because obviously both of those are key drivers for the municipalities. Then when we've identified the pain points, if you like, and we've identified how technology can ease or solve that problem, we start with, sort of a small scale proof of concept trial.

Nick Wilcox: Don't go and blow the year's budgets on some great scheme. Do something small, make sure it delivers exactly what it is that you hope it's going to deliver. Often we find it delivers more in fact, and it's got unforeseen benefits as well. But do that and then gradually expand it out as both energy and money permits. Really don't, don't try and do everything all in one go. But you know, let's take it in small steps, a stage at a time, and validate what we're doing as we go along. And that approach seems to work very well.

Pete Pizzutillo: What about, so we talked about the municipalities, but you also mentioned some things that I think would be an enterprise level, some pretty interesting. So the digital signage as well as the sensing for say, insurance companies. How are you, how are you having those, starting those conversations with say a corporation and what do you see the value to them of being able to, I know I, we have some of your E signs to help us manage and communicate across the geographic dispersed. So how are you introducing that to the enterprise? These types of concepts?

Digital Signage, Information and Long Range & Low Power

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, lots of different ways. I think probably the most obvious one is the use of the digital signs in meeting room management. I mean, we've all been there, haven't we? You know, we have an important visitor to the building we've booked a meeting room. We go along to it with our visitor in tow, and we find "Oh, there's somebody already in there. And they've got papers and laptops and coffee cups for all over the place." then you have the conversation which is, "Hey, we've got this room booked." Or, "Sorry, we didn't know that was going to be anybody in here." And then you've got a choice. You can have that awkward shuffle where you wait for them to carry all their papers and vacate the room, or you can do the safari and go and look for somewhere else to take your client to.

Nick Wilcox: Now in either case it's inefficient, it's not very impressive and it doesn't necessarily create the right atmosphere for the meeting, the kick in the hole. Now that's a classic example of just needing to make information available to people. So if you have a sign on the outside of the meeting room that says there's a meeting of the staff in here in four minutes time, people are far less likely to go in and camp out in the meeting room and take it over when they shouldn't. But it's quite difficult to retrofit that kind of signage technology into existing buildings because again, the traditional solutions require power and they require network. So you'd have to go and drill out the walls and run cables and all sorts of other stuff. But by using a LoRaONE low power solution, we can do something but is battery powered.

Nick Wilcox: And unlike your tablet or iPad or whatever, where you measure battery life in terms of hours or days. With the signs, we were able to get the battery life to be weeks and months, that kind of timescale between recharging. And one of the beauties of it of course is it doesn't require any change to people's behavior. They simply book the meeting room in the way they always have. Whether that's through Outlook or through a Google calendar or whatever system it is. And the signs just automatically grab that information and display it so people know what's going to happen. So we found the signage is a very hot product for us at the moment. Lots of people resonate with the problem I described, and it's a simple and effective solution to it. But things like the environment sensing, you know, I have to say we haven't started the conversations with insurance companies on that.

Nick Wilcox: They've actually approached us, which has been quite exciting. Because of course, if you have a building with damp in it, ultimately that results in an insurance claim. And as with with most building maintenance things, the earlier you can intervene, the less it costs to put price the problem. And often, particularly with damp, people don't know about it until it's too late, until the cost of repair is expensive.

Artificial Intelligence to Count People & Usage of Facilities

Nick Wilcox: So the insurance companies are very interested in looking at ways in which they can reduce their claims costs by getting an early warning of impending problems. The other area that's going down much better in the corporate space and we originally expected is of course the footfall monitoring that we do. So we use an artificial intelligence system that analyzes images, but instead of doing sort of a facial recognition thing, we've trained it to recognize just the shape of people so we can count how many people are in each of the images.

Nick Wilcox: So if you imagine a video camera streaming images in where we're counting the number of people that are in there. And originally, this was developed for a municipality who wanted to measure footfall on the high street. But today, that's being used in office buildings to identify which bathroom facilities are most heavily used so that they can deploy their cleaning staff more efficiently. It's being used in bus shelters in order to support the case for advertising revenue from a bus shelter. And of course the municipalities are using it because it helps them to justify investment in the high street funding bids, if they get funds from central government to carry out some sort of project to improve the high street. That generally is about how do you increase the footfall, and they need to demonstrate back to the central government. The funds have indeed done that. So our footfall products are proving to be incredibly popular.

Leveraging Existing Bandwidth and Infrastructure to Solve Real World Problems at Lower Cost

Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah. So, this is the Broadband Bunch, and we're spending some time with Nick Wilcox from Giosprite. And he's really opened our eyes around this interesting technology that is leveraging the white space, if you will, the bandwidth that came from analog television and teaching us about LoRaONE and some of the use cases around there that how, how it can bring capability to municipalities, communities and enterprises. And it's been really interesting. Nick, I have to ask you, what are the, what are the things that are going to unlock this? I mean, there, this market, I see that there's, the LoRa Alliance, I know Microsoft air band has some momentum going on there. So there are other folks in this space that are believers. But I feel like I don't have a good sense of how, how it's going to be adopted or leveraged as much as existing broadband or 5G that's definitely competing for its attention in the marketplace.

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, I mean it's a very good point. I think it is the same story. It's a step at a time. But the fact is that we can deploy these LoRaONE networks, these devices that will make use of that network far cheaper than the traditional solutions, which from the point of view of the municipality means that they can do something rather than nothing. So if they want to improve stuff, we have a way that they can do it that's affordable.

Pete Pizzutillo: So what's going to take that? I mean how are we going to get these federal and regional governments to understand the dollar for dollar return in LoRaONE in terms of time to market, and cost for value is pretty significant versus some of the other alternatives that are out there.

Nick Wilcox: Yeah, so I think the only way we can do it at the moment is by doing some of these projects. You know, the proof of concept projects, for example. We're building a massive data on the effectiveness of those, and the more noise we are making in the market and the more substance we have to back that up in terms of the data, it's making the larger organizations started to take note.

Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah. So when you're talking about data, you're talking about the return on investment data.

Proof of ROI from Real Use Cases in Real Cities

Nick Wilcox: Yeah. So I mean part of it comes down to, can we actually collect the data they want and then having collected it, does it support the business case that was there that gave rise to the project in the first place? So a classic example, I've mentioned it before, we're going to spend some money doing things in the high streets to improve footfall, well we can count footfall and we can show whether or not the steps that have been taken have actually improved that footfall or not.

Pete Pizzutillo: Got you. Like driving business within a shopping districts within London or something that, yeah. And I would also say that the data itself that's collected, that type of information, there's a lot that you can do with that in of analytics and big data. Obviously people are looking for more and more access to data. You might be collecting things that we don't know how to apply them or learn from them yet either, which would be interesting.

Pete Pizzutillo: But that's a topic for another podcast. So Nick, I want to thank you for your time. I appreciate it. It's a really interesting passion that you all have in mission. I'm, I was, I'm a big fan. I think there's a limitless number of applications that can, that you guys can help enable these towns of any size actually, which is great. I mean that's an akin to our mission of bringing big technologies to small communities, because everybody deserves to have the capabilities and not everybody can afford to pay for them. So any way we can make that available, I think we should. So thank you for that mission. Good luck on that. And I look forward to catching up with you in the future and figuring out what communities are listening to you and what other interesting ways you're applying this technology to our world.


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