Comcast unveiled Comcast Smart Solutions last week, a new business unit to address the unique needs of connectivity and IoT solutions business for cities, communities and campuses.
The company said it will provide connectivity and consulting services
using parts of its vast empire of acquired and internally formed businesses; these include Comcast Business, Xfinity Communities and its enterprise IoT unit, MachineQ.
In Pennsylvania, the cableco said it has been using Philadelphia's Midtown Village neighborhood as a proving ground for its new approach.
Cableco Comcast has a deep bench of IoT expertise, media and consumer home networking in-house – which could make all the difference.
In a recent blog post, Comcast said it was "installing smart streetlights with built-in optical and environmental sensors that can count pedestrians, vehicles, bicyclists, and parked vehicles, and measure temperature, relative humidity, and carbon monoxide."
No more hiding somewhere in the night
Philadelphia's Smart City director, Emily Yates, told the crowd assembled at the Smart Cities Connect conference last week that her city will continue
to be careful with the kind of data that it can collect by monitoring people in public spaces.
During a keynote panel Yates was joined by Comcast's SVP, Community Connections, Stephen Hackley. Both said that there was no personally identifiable information (PII) being collected during this pilot program.
The sensors are looking to see whether objects on a street or sidewalk are pedestrians, vehicles or something else. They're looking to see if an object is a bike, not a Schwinn, according to Hackley.
US Ignite, the government-based nonprofit that helped match Philadelphia's needs and Comcast's capabilities, had a role in making sure both sides of the pilot program, called SmartBlockPHL, worked well together.
US Ignite's senior director of partnerships and outreach, Mari Silbey (a former Light Reading editor), moderated last week's conference panel and asked Hackley and Yates about what's changed in the relationship between the city of Philadelphia and Comcast.
Hackley's answer ticked all the right boxes. He talked about long-term
relationships with cities, not just rushing to ring up sales.
"It will scale when it's ready to scale and I think the people who are participating in this movement need to understand that they need to have that staying power," Hackley said.
"This can be sort of a quick flash – let's be transactional – because
things move around on us just a bit."
The "movement," has Hackley called it, is nothing new. Telcos have tried to crack the code of selling smart cities solutions before, though they primarily were focused on speeding up small cell installations to boost their 5G networks. Most telco smart city efforts have never lived up to their own hype or expectations.
Emily Yates (left) and Stephen Hackley (center) field questions from Mari Silbey (right) about how Philadelphia and Comcast are working together on SmartBlockPHL.
(Source: Shellee Fisher Photography & Design)
The journey, and the destination
If Comcast's new business unit has the autonomy to work and treat cities as something more than a large collection of poles for holding 5G radios, it could succeed. Comcast does have a deep bench of IoT expertise, media and consumer home networking in-house.
On paper, it has the ability to supply more than just connectivity, which, in turn, helps it connect more things to its network.
Though Comcast dominates consumer living rooms and the media landscape, Hackley said that company's approach to smart cities will be to foster collaboration.
"We're not trying to invent new technologies or go back into the lab and do it all ourselves," he said.
"We think it's too new, too early. And so we favor bringing the right solution providers to bear and the right integrators and the right consultancies to solve problems."
The SmartBlockPHL pilot has been, Yates said, a testament to Comcast's patience and flexibility. The project first was centered around stopping illegal dumping in a part of town with high foot traffic and lots of restaurants and retail.
But the pandemic hit, and the approach now focuses on understanding how citizens, who are now doing more outside after COVID-19 lockdowns, are using public spaces.
During that time, the city said it was eager to replace 100,000 aging street light fixtures with new LED lights and better technology. Comcast's patience could yet pay off with the scale that Hackley mentioned earlier.
Indeed, Comcast seems to understand that its approach will help it succeed in smart cities applications where many telcos couldn't.
"We know that at the heart of every smart city smart solution is a network and Comcast kind of does network well, whether it's broadband and fiber, Ethernet or CBRS or WiFi," Hackley said.
That Hackley at least mentioned using the right kind of network for the problem, not just answering every question with "5G," is another encouraging sign.
"So, at the heart, we feel like this is a market that we are credentialed to be in," Hackley said on the panel.
"And as we look at where there's growth and excitement, this is a terrific place for us to put a stake in the ground and build a new practice within Comcast."
Some will win, some will lose
Even with the success of SmartBlockPHL, the program's future is still up in the air. The pilot program is expected to run through July. Yates said
in a LinkedIn post that her last day on the job was Friday, April 8.
Now Philly is looking for a new Smart Cities Director who will be charged with picking up the pieces of this and other city pilots, making some sense of them in a broader strategy and making sure they don't run over budget.
Meanwhile, Comcast is not just waiting on one city to find a way to make money in this game. The company said it has several pilots and solutions in various stages of completion at Arlington County, Virginia; College Park, Georgia; Pleasanton, California; and Moraga, also in California.
The solutions include using sensors in streetlights and other city-owned fixtures to do everything from counting vehicles, pedestrians and environmental analysis.
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— Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief,
A version of this story first appeared on Light Reading.