Building the smart infrastructure the region deserves

While a number of new internet infrastructure technologies are on the rise, it’s not always clear what impact they can have on the average person, let alone entrepreneurs and businesses. To understand what impact innovations like the 5G network can have on our region, and to hear more about the people working to maximise that impact, we spoke with Jack McDougle, President and CEO at Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Chuck Bean, Executive Director at Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

ABERMAN: What exactly is a smart region, and what does it have to do with things like 5G?

MCDOUGLE: A couple of things on that. So, let’s just start with 5G for example. So, people have heard a lot about 5G, and it’s getting rolled out now, but exactly what is 5G? It’s the latest version of a cellular technology. So think about it in terms of incredible amounts of data moving across these networks in lightning speed. So, how is that practical to individuals? Most people, or many people, use Uber and Lyft for example. Uber and Lyft could not operate in a 3G cellular world. They needed 4G, and it’s because of the amount of data that’s getting transmitted across the networks that’s required.

So even sometimes now you get a little frustrated with your Uber map, because it’s not exactly pinpointing you where you need to be, or where you need to go. 5G is going to eliminate a lot of that. But, then so much more. It’s estimated right now in this environment that per person, there’s roughly maybe six to eight devices connected through these networks. When 5G rolls out, we’re looking upwards of 28 per person. And so, that’s not just things that you walk around with in your pocket, or on your watch, but as things in your house that are now starting to communicate with one another. So if you’ve heard of the Internet of Things, IOT, that’s when things start to talk to each other, and start to work together.

And how that’s relevant to us in our region is that technology continues to move very, very rapidly across the globe. And so, it’s no longer just a luxury or a convenience, but it’s a necessity that you stay in the forefront of having digital infrastructure in place, so that we can fully take advantage of these technologies. And so, that’s what Chuck and I, and the Consortium of Universities, as founding partners of the Greater Washington Smart Region Movement, are looking to do across this region over the next 10, 15, and 20 years.

ABERMAN: Chuck, it’s interesting to me that when I see you and how hard you and the Metropolitan Council of Governments have worked over the years on things like Metro and transportation, is this the 21st century superhighway? Is that what you guys are interested in this?

BEAN: Well, probably reason number one, you heard Jack, and I think he’s a brainiac, so I’m just going to hitch my cart to Jack’s train. We partnered with the Consortium of Universities, so we have the brainpower of the universities in on this. But to answer your question, yeah, CoG is involved in transportation, and we’re involved in environmental work, and we’re involved in public safety and homeland security. So, getting a digital platform, being smart on all those areas, transportation, environment, public safety, there’s huge opportunity opportunities, I think, for local government.

ABERMAN: What we’re describing is basically a topography that will allow for rapid data exchange, so that Uber will have a better idea of where Uber is, a little better idea of whether or not our maps are accurate, or traffic’s accurate as we’re driving along. Jack, those are the things that come to my mind. Give me some other examples: what does life look like for a smart region?

MCDOUGLE: Well to put it in context, it wasn’t that long ago that you needed 14 parking apps on your phone to navigate across this region. It wasn’t very effective. Most people probably remember the early stages of EZPasses. You know, if you wanted to go visit your grandparents three states away, you needed at least three different EZPasses, so you never want to see them. Those are basic examples, but when we start thinking about elevated opportunities around connected health care, integrated mobility, then this becomes a lot more complicated.

And so, how do we think about, as a region, how are we going to deploy these technologies to our maximum benefit? So, there’s a couple of options. We could either sit back, and react to the future, which really isn’t very successful, or we can get out in front of it. And so, working with the Council of Governments is a really amazing opportunity. And then as Chuck says, bringing in the universities in that environment gives us a really good cross cutting platform to start thinking about these things holistically, and not just piecemeal. Because quite frankly, Montgomery County deploys a certain technology, and Fairfax County deploys another technology, if they’re not compatible, it’s not going to work. That’s the parking app example.

ABERMAN: So for example, if people start to use 5G technology for Homeland Security as a way to figure out where there might be inhibitions on the ability to get people out of a situation rapidly, and you’ve got D.C. has an emergency management system that’s different from Maryland that’s different for Virginia. And people are going up K Street, heading towards Canal Road, which way should they go? If you don’t have interoperability, you’ve got a problem. Is that what you’re getting at?

BEAN: Yeah. These are things that the emergency managers of the region and the city county managers are working on all the time. So, one real example is this region needs to evolve from the current 911 platform to a next generation 911 platform. And we have to make sure that if I’m on the border between Bethesda and the District, and I make a call, that call goes to the right 911 center.

Part of it is consensus and operation agreements, but part of it is using the best technology. Now my perspective, the opportunity to work more closely with the private sector is that we’ll be able to get to the those standards faster. What is the cutting edge standard that we need to be using? That’s going to accelerate and facilitate these kind of agreements, these kind of collaborations.

ABERMAN: Well it sounds to me like a lot of this is trying to orchestrate private sector activity, and that is a fascinating topic. Chuck, you’ve been here in this region for a long time, trying to coordinate lots of different things. Metro is an example. How are we going to get these private sector actors, like the telecoms and startups and big companies, to cooperate on this standard setting activity?

BEAN: To put this in perspective, it’s about four years ago that we did a region-wide analysis of our region’s infrastructure, and we were about 58 billion dollars behind. So we made a big chunk of that in Metro funding deal. But there’s more infrastructure investment that’s needed in our water pipes and our electrical grid, et cetera. The only way we’re going to get there, at least the only way we’re going to get there faster, is to think about public private partnerships. Look at Transurban in Northern Virginia: this has been good for the Commonwealth, good for commuters I would think, and good for Transurban.

Now, the industries that you’re talking about all have a unique partnership with government. There’s public utility commissions, public service commissions, different names, and the undergrounding of cable and pipes is in essence a partnership between utilities and governments. So, working with the Board of Trade, they can kind of bring an umbrella to their side of the equation, and the council governments can bring our side to the table for some making sure that we’re putting the best pipes in the ground, if you will. And Jack, maybe pipes is a 20th century term, when I should be thinking about 21st century terms.

MCDOUGLE: Pipes is still good. Fiber cable, Wi-Fi networks, a whole host of things. But yeah, there’s different ways to think about it.

ABERMAN: Yeah, pipes or railroads.

MCDOUGLE: Well I think you know, and as Chuck says too, the private sector can’t do this alone, and government can’t do this alone. I think we’re entering a new era where that’s more apparent than ever. And so, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to really begin thinking about how can we more effectively leverage public private partnerships. If you think about technology deployments to date, now remember, we’re not talking that long ago, the Internet really only went live in 1991.

You know, this isn’t a very long term phenomena that we’re dealing with, and so we’re constantly evolving, constantly figuring out how things look going forward. But even the business models, business models have already turned upside down, in many cases because of the Internet. And I think they will continue to do so. So, how we compete, how we define pre-competitive collaboration, and I think one of the things that a lot of the service and the technology providers have recognized is that, the way we’re currently operating, the marketplace is somewhat capped and limited.

And so if we want to begin to expand that marketplace so that we can take advantage of what these technologies allow us, we have to start thinking about things differently. And so I’ll give you an example of that: if you think about sort of technology, or smart technology 1.0, that was purely an industry play. An industry would come in with a solution, it would be top down, and they would deploy. As you moved into 2.0, government’s got more involved in these, putting out RFPs, and then bringing in a technology provider or a solution provider, and they would implement, you know, a solution stack. But none of this was integrated, and so it wasn’t thinking holistically.

So Chuck, you know what we’re talking about, what we’re thinking about here is, how does our region begin to think about these things systemically, and who plays what role? Because it’s not just about cable and Wi-Fi and 5G and those, that’s not the only infrastructure at play here. It’s also governance. How do we work as the business community? How does government respond to the needs of its citizens? What does the policy environment need to be? What do the regulations need to be? That’s all part of the infrastructure that’s required.

There’s an interesting concept that, if you take a new technology and just put it on top of an old process, all you get is a very expensive old process. So if we really think about the process, and so Chuck, you know, working with the Council of Governments and the universities, and bringing in all these other partners, it’s going to really afford us a chance to look through that. So, this needs to be all in. This is an inclusive process. It affects everyone, everyone needs to be involved. You know, we can’t do this alone.

ABERMAN: If you have a situation where different parts of a region have different rules, for one, they’re going to accept autonomous buses and where they’re going to operate, and how they’re gonna operate. It’s a mess. So, I hear you on that, if one part of the region says that they’re willing to accept a certain type of drones in their region and others are not, we’re going to have a problem. If certain parts of our region deal with digital access by providing subsidies to low income houses, and low income families, and others do not, we’re going to have a problem. So, are you ultimately talking about a lobbying effort? Is this trying to provide guidance to our politicians? How do you see this unfolding?

BEAN: Couple of things, from you know, a government guy talking about a business perspective. But let me give it a shot. I hear from Jack and his board members interests in this effort because, if both Fairfax and Montgomery and the district, which are markets in themselves, but if they express the same desire for the same product go to the same standard, then I think his folks are more interested, because it’s a bigger market. Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George alone are bigger than a half dozen states, but put those together, you’ve got a bigger market. So that’s fine.

But the second part of the business angle is, I hear from Jack and his board members an interest in, I think the term would be a social entrepreneur approach, social good approach. That there’s the potential for the private sector to bring capital to an initiative. There is a return on investment for those investors. But if there is an honest broker, then part of that investment can go towards a social good. So if there is some kind of smart technology deployed in a heavy commerce district, central business district, of the district or Bethesda, Tysons, et cetera, that if we can work together and devise that governance, that investment can also be channeled to subsidize other neighborhoods, other communities, for that same technology.

ABERMAN: So traditionally, that has happened on a federal level, and we can go back to AT&T, which was regulated by the government is a natural monopoly and effectively long distance subsidized local coverage in rural areas. That all broke down. How do you do this without the federal government, or will the federal government ultimately have to be a partner in this? So for example, access to broadband as one big example. I mean, solving the digital divide, that would seem to me that the federal government’s regulation, or not regulation, of the providers of bandwidth is a huge issue here.

MCDOUGLE: Well in a lot of cases, we’re entering new territory here. You know, around standard setting, Chuck’s point about setting standards and looking at standards. In some cases, localities are out in front of where the federal government is. In other cases, the Federal Government’s out in front. And so, we will need them involved, and actually we already do have them involved, in this particular effort, particularly around standards setting. But when you start thinking about a whole host of issues that are very important to individuals around data for example, you know, who owns data? Who has access to the data? How does data get monetized? How do we ensure privacy, and respect privacy?

And so, you have a whole host of issues. We can’t ultimately do that on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis. That’s not something that Chuck’s folks you know want to deal with individually. We need to come up with some very common platforms. Same thing around cybersecurity. When you talk to a lot of the folks in CoG, I think there are opportunities where by working together, we could devise means to provide a greater level of cybersecurity across the entire region, by collaborating more effectively in some of those areas. And they already do.

But there is, I think, an opportunity to expand that. And so, there are some cases where each locality will have a unique requirement that they’re going to need. That’s fine. But in most cases, 60-80 percent of the requirements are going to be common across the board. Why don’t we take advantage of the economies of scale and do that in a much more integrated fashion? And do it from the outset, rather than having to go back later on and retrofit, and all that capital then just goes by the wayside.

ABERMAN: Well more to the point, I think that what we see very clearly is that in the absence of some sort of unified standard, you end up with silos, and in a lot of ways, the growth in the Internet is now being constrained by the emergence of silos, walled gardens. Whether it’s Apple or it’s Google or Facebook, they’re all competing to try to now trap the users within them, and many are concerned that a lot of the freedom that the web created is being constrained, and many people want to make sure that as 5G emerges, as smart technologies emerge, similar things don’t happen. Jack, I know this is something that you and Chuck, and everybody else, are thinking a lot about. Give me some tangible examples of the type of things we’re going to see happen this region soon, and how they’ll make a difference.

MCDOUGLE: That’s a bit of a muddied question, if you will, but there’s a lot. So, there’s a lot of things that we have to do to put in place in order to get to there. So, one of the things that we’ve seen, there’s a lot of talk about smart technologies. We see it all the time, and it’s on the cover of magazines, on the news, everybody’s talking about it, but a lot of that is all about the applications. And so, we haven’t spent as much time talking about: what is the operating system?

Think about your phone. You can’t really run your angry birds app if you don’t have a good operating system. So before we start jumping to apps and investing in all these various applications around healthcare and mobility and transportation and things like that, we’ve got to make sure we get the infrastructure right. So we’re gonna be doing a lot of that work at the outset. That’s why the partnership with Chuck and his folks, and the universities, is so really important that we get that right. However, as part of that though, we will be launching some things coming up around autonomous vehicles. In fact, we will likely see autonomous vehicles in our region this year.

We’re going to likely see Wi-Fi enabled kiosks deployed this year in some of our neighborhoods. So, we’ll see some of those kinds of tangible things. But think about it in these terms right now, and Chuck and I were talking about this and some of his folks around census, the decennial census that’s coming up. Twenty percent of folks don’t have access to the Internet on a regular basis. That could potentially cause significant problems with undercounting.

One of the key things that we have to do here is, we’ve got to eliminate the digital divide. And so, how do we make sure that we get everybody connected, because if you’re not participating in this, you’re falling farther and farther behind. Job opportunities, better health care, transportation, and a whole host of things. And all that does is continue to widen the economic divide that really exists in our region, and we need to work together to make sure that we close that, and technology offers us an opportunity to do that.

ABERMAN: Absolutely and indeed, the promise of 5G is broadband speeds through a smart device and cell phone, and as we’ve seen in less developed countries, as they develop, often they leapfrog the whole telecom network and just go to cells. Is that what you’re thinking 5G will allow to people who don’t otherwise have access to broadband, and have access to the Internet through their phones?

MCDOUGLE: Yeah I think so. What’s really interesting is there’s a lot of folks that actually have the device, they just don’t have the data plans. So we have to figure out, how do we close that gap?

ABERMAN: Chuck, what about you?

BEAN: I think there’s going to be some things that that average Joe can see, and then there’s going to be some things that the person is not going to see, but is going to help them in their quality of life. You know, I think that if we can execute on this plan collaboratively, more people have more access to the Internet, and the fastest net possible in the world. CoG has long done the air pollution warnings for the region, and we have monitors in cooperation with Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. But you know, these could be much more granular. Jack talks about the internet of things, this could be right down to the neighborhood, and the block, what’s the air quality there?

MDOT, DDOT, VDOT, we work with them on traffic signal optimization, so traffic can can flow better, but we’re always hungry for more technology. I think if somebody is picked up by an ambulance, a greater technology can have a greater health care, as they’re transported to the facility. Behind the scenes, our local jurisdictions rely on computer aided dispatch to collaborate on which is the closest fire truck if if an event is right on the border between a city and county. So, we always want the best technology possible, and we want to make sure that that best technology is for all five and a half million residents of our region.

I think a big picture, we have to be able to seize this opportunity for two reasons. One: our metro region has the scale, we’re the fifth largest economy in the country, over 500 billion dollars. So, we can harness that scale. And we’re the only region with the seat of the federal government. Seventy percent of the world’s Internet traffic goes to our data centers, and we know all about DARPA as an ecosystem to spur innovation. So, no one else has this opportunity, and I’m glad we’re working with the Board of Trade and Consortium of Universities to seize it.

MCDOUGLE: I couldn’t agree more. With some of the assets that we have in this region, if we can align those more effectively, we’ll really begin to set us, apart make us that much more competitive, and improve livability. One of the things to keep in mind here too is that this is about improving the citizen experience, individuals. This is grassroots. It’s not about a top down imposed solution, but it’s about engaging everyone. And how do you improve the daily lives of our citizens across this region?

So, transportation is a key aspect to that. So, how do we improve our transportation systems? How do we put dedicated bus lanes in across the region? Then, how do you then add technology that allows people to make better decisions about how fast they can get to and from work? To a single mom with a kid in daycare, if she can cut an hour or two hours out of her daily commute, that has a massive impact. So, there’s a whole host of things that start to come together.

ABERMAN: We’re almost out of our time together and I don’t want to leave you without asking you this: what’s your call to action to the business community? What do we all need to do to support this?

MCDOUGLE: So I think from the outset, one of the ways we’re rolling this out is awareness. Getting more and more people aware of what it is that we’re trying to do, and what the benefits are of collaborating on building out this kind of an infrastructure across the region. So, get involved. Give us a call, let us know, and participate in what we’re trying to do. We deliberately call this a movement, because the more people involved, the better off it’s going to be.

ABERMAN: How about you, Chuck? What’s your call to action?

BEAN: I think from a government perspective, the cities and counties of the region just need to come forward with what their needs are. And if that need can be addressed together, and we’re answering the question, what can we do better together than we can do alone? And in this case, with the private sector and university community.

ABERMAN: As a startup guy, I love it when people talk about building a big sandbox, because I know lots of people are going to get opportunities to create companies, and create new jobs. Wonderful having you, Jack McDougle, CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, thanks for joining us today.

MCDOUGLE: Right. Thank you.

ABERMAN: And Chuck Bean, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council of Governments. Chuck, always great to see you.

BEAN: Great to be here with you.

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