If your smart city projects are being held up by broadband bottlenecks, you may want to skip complaining to your city council and find your Digital Town Square.
As communities across the US strive to live up to the promise of smart cities, many hit a wall before they can get a project off the ground due to infrastructure inefficiencies – like gaps in network connectivity and a lack of locally hosted applications and computing power. But US Ignite, a nonprofit founded in 2012 and backed by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is helping cities overcome that by deploying Digital Town Squares: local hubs of network infrastructure that fill in the holes in an existing network to improve broadband delivery.
Digital Town Squares are part of a larger project, called Smart Gigabit Communities, which connects over two dozen communities working on smart city applications and solutions. According to US Ignite, new participants can join "with a one-year, $30,000 membership fee paid by the municipality or on behalf of the community by another partner."
In addition to NSF funding, US Ignite can roll out Digital Town Squares in part through a partnership with Juniper Networks, which also serves on US Ignite's board (Juniper CMO Mike Marcellin currently holds the seat). In a report detailing successes with the Digital Town Square project, US Ignite credits Juniper switches, primarily from its QFX5100 line, with powering deployments in Oregon, Utah and Illinois.
Each project appeals to a unique community need.
The Digital Town Square in Eugene, Oregon, for example, created to reduce application latency and increase civic digital resiliency, is credited with attracting 25 tech companies to the downtown area in the last two years and with reducing vacancy rates by 7%. Building on the project's success, further plans are in place to better connect Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, with a goal of supporting local applications, like seismic monitoring for earthquakes.
And in Illinois, Digital Town Squares were created to build on a decade-old fiber buildout, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, whose progress had stalled due to bottleneck issues. Working with US Ignite, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign deployed Digital Town Squares to widen the connecting pathway, increasing broadband capacity and availability and improving network resiliency. As a result, US Ignite claims, Urbana-Champaign is now "offering citizens improved access to health care, educational and recreational institutions, public safety and government agencies, and social service and religious organizations, as well as increased access to public computing centers."
With COVID-19 not only forcing temporary stay-at-home orders, but also requiring businesses to reimagine the workforce to keep enforcing social distancing as necessary going forward, reliance on remote work and telemedicine creates a more urgent demand for better broadband nationwide. As federal lawmakers fight for scraps to save their cities and states, there's little hope of meaningful broadband legislation anytime soon. But Digital Town Squares seem to offer a promising workaround to local bottlenecks and a pathway to get some projects off the ground.
— Nicole Ferraro, Contributing Editor, Light Reading