Blog

Building the Backbone of Connectivity

10th January 2019

By Craig Nevill-Manning and Prem Ramaswami, Sidewalk Labs

Building a new neighborhood from scratch is an opportunity to think about how digital infrastructure can be improved to be cheaper, better, and easier to change as technology evolves.

Digital infrastructure is a basic building block of cities today and tomorrow — the backbone of connectivity that will help residents, companies, organizations, and local agencies use data to launch new services that improve our everyday lives.

Digital infrastructure is what alerts a traffic light that a streetcar is running behind schedule and should get a green light. Digital infrastructure is what tells people when the next bus is coming on Transit. Digital infrastructure is what times the traffic signals on Richmond and Adelaide to allow traffic to flow smoothly and provides more safety to pedestrians.

Next week, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) will give us an opportunity to discuss some of the work we have been exploring around digital infrastructure that will inform the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for Quayside which will be released this year. We plan to work with existing providers to introduce these new technologies and build on the work done to date by Waterfront Toronto. As with all digital infrastructure, residents and businesses would not be required to use these solutions. You can find our full presentation to DSAP here.

This work reflects our most current perspective and we will continue to refine it as we learn more. Throughout this process, we are committed to the responsible use of data, including privacy by design principles, as we consult on a broader data governance policy for Quayside.

Our vision for digital infrastructure includes:

Seamless and secure neighbourhood-wide network

Right now, it is challenging for people to access their digital devices at home when they are away. If a family wants to check on their dog while they are out, they would normally have to make sure their video camera was cloud-connected. A better approach would enable the family to access this video using data from their home internet network, just as if they were at home, without data having to be transferred or stored at any cloud provider.

Enter the “software-defined network”: a new approach to routing on the internet that enables better management and control over a network, as well as more security. This allows people to have their own private networks with all of their devices on it — no matter where the person or the devices are located.

A neighbourhood-wide software-defined network will make set-up easier for residents and will be available anywhere in the neighbourhood including parks and public spaces.

Another advantage of this network is security. Because the network will know what each device is supposed to be doing, it will detect if any of them have been compromised. For example, if a thermostat that normally sends a few bytes every minute starts streaming megabytes per second, the network can shut it down quickly.

It will no longer be necessary to have a router in your home that you must regularly debug, restart, update, maintain, or upgrade. Software-defined networks allow the management of the network to happen centrally which means each individual house won’t need its own router.

Super-Passive Optical Network

The internet is essential to cities and their residents. Sidewalk Labs is exploring a new technology called Super-PON (Passive Optical Network) to make accessing the internet easier, cheaper, with less equipment for residents.

A current PON system can reach 32 to 64 users per fiber strand, with 20 kilometres of transmission reach. Super-PON supports 768 users per strand and extends the reach to 50 kilometres. It achieves this by splitting light into many different colours (or wavelengths), with each serving as its own signal over a single strand of fibre-optic cable. The result is a faster network over a greater distance with significantly less fibre-optic cable, less equipment and less electricity.

Super-PON is now being studied by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association, the world’s largest technical professional organization for possible inclusion in its IEEE 802.3 international standards for telecommunications. If applied at Quayside, Super-PON would make Toronto the first Canadian city using this technology (it currently exists in San Antonio, Texas) and will help ensure that Torontonians have faster connectivity across the waterfront.

Koala

We’ve all experienced the frustration: a lane being shut down for hours (sometimes days!) to fix or add a single car-counting device to an intersection. This one action requires the city to send a bucket truck with several staff, devise a creative mounting solution, employ an electrician to shut down the supply to the pole, and repeat much of this labour-intensive process for any repairs or upgrades.

Everywhere you look in Toronto, devices are mounted to public infrastructure: Wi-Fi access points, cellular nodes, environmental sensors, and traffic or public safety cameras. Installing these devices is disruptive to residents and costly for the city both in time and money.

This is a challenge that we believe can be solved by designing a standardized mount (working name, “Koala)” that will make it fast and inexpensive to install a device on a light pole or other street fixture. A Koala will work by providing a sturdy physical mount, power and network connectivity all at once. Just as USB ports have made it easier for us all to connect devices to computers, this mount will create a standard connection point for cities that will drive down the costs of installing and maintaining digital hardware.

Sidewalk Labs’ mounts will provide a low-cost, low-fuss way for cities or third parties to improve urban life. These mounts will be designed to provide power and connectivity to devices without the need to run new electric wires or close down a street for hours. A device can be installed in a matter of moments using a common ladder or even a reach grabber.

To be clear, the mounts themselves would not collect any information, and any installation of devices and the use of any data they collect would be subject to applicable Canadian privacy laws and the data governance policy framework that is ultimately decided upon for this community.

Sidewalk’s approach

At the core of Sidewalk Labs’ approach to creating and enabling innovation is our belief in the importance of public access to data and published standards for digital hardware and software.

Openness is essential to creating new services that help improve our quality of life and enable a vibrant ecosystem of urban innovation for startups, government agencies, researchers, and civic organizations. Just as no single company owns the web, no single company, organization, or agency should own the data or databases used by cities. It must be publicly accessible for everyone to improve, build on, or even replace. Our goal is to make this infrastructure “future proof” providing the dynamism and flexibility cities need. As with all digital infrastructure, residents and businesses would not be required to use these solutions.

It will be a few years before anyone is living in Quayside which gives us lots of time to test and refine these ideas. We look forward to hearing feedback from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and the public as we continue to fine-tune them.

Craig Nevill-Manning is the Head of Engineering and Prem Ramaswami is the Head of Product at Sidewalk Labs. They are both based in New York City.

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