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Welcome to Las Vegas, the city of intelligent lights, self-driving shuttles and startups. Away from the glittering, casino-littered area known as the Strip, it's much more pedestrian-friendly. It's only a 15-minute drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, but it feels like a different world.
It is quiet in the city center because during the strip with 200,000 additional visitors crowded forThe streets here were cold and empty last week. It didn't look like a city of the future.
Then someone pointed me to an intelligent intersection and I looked up and saw knots and cameras attached to a traffic light. I think smart cities will look less like Blade Runner than they do now, only with sensors that hang on everything – street signs, bus stops, mobile towers, buildings.
Las Vegas is one of many cities that are investing in smarter infrastructure and wanting to make life easier for both residents and tourists as part of an ambitious technology plan. It is part of a broader trend that uses technologies such as sensors, 5G networks, supercomputers and self-driving vehicles.
The heart of the project is the Las Vegas International Innovation Center, which is located in an unassuming office building on 4th Street in downtown Vegas. The large glass windows are adorned with logos of companies that support Vegas in its vision: AT&T, which used the smart lights; Dell that manages edge computing; NTT Data, a Japanese technology company that helps analyze the data collected; and Cisco, who helped with a self-driving car project. Inside, the center is adorned with intelligent street lights and scale models that show how parks and buildings are connected.
Las Vegas plans to be a "Peer to Silicon Valley" by 2025, said Michael Sherwood, director of the City of Las Vegas Information Technology Department. He not only wants to make Vegas the capital of entertainment, but also the capital of innovation and technology.
A private 5G network
5G, the next generation of mobile technology, was a big buzzword at CES 2020. Carriers like Verizon promised a number of state-of-the-art devices this year. Vegas wants to go further.
"We're building our own private 5G network," Sherwood CNET announced exclusively. The city will use the unlicensed spectrum and start the project in the first quarter of this year for a first test start by summer 2020. She works with several unknown partners, buys her own devices and builds the network herself.
A private cellular network will help ensure that everyone has equal access to connectivity, not just those who live, work or go to school in the more affluent areas. "You can't be a smart city if you don't think of the population," Sherwood said.
The network is being tested in a small area of the medical district where the autonomous vehicle project is located. It is unclear whether it is only used by the smart cities infrastructure or whether residents can also access it. However, by using a private cellular network, Vegas doesn't have to pay operators a monthly fee, which means Smart City plans can be expanded faster.
Bill Menezes, a senior analyst at Gartner, said the private 5G plan made sense because it gave Vegas more control.
"The city can control the location and timing of 5G coverage to meet their needs, rather than waiting for a public network to be deployed," said Menezes. The city would also have access and control over the data, as well as location and right of way advantages that airlines cannot get.
Building a network has a price, Menezes said, but "it is definitely worth owning the infrastructure" as long as the cost is comparable to that of existing 4G LTE and public Wi-Fi networks.
Las Vegas: where the streets are smarter
In 2016, the City Council of Las Vegas declared an area in the city center to be an innovation district. It is now used to test technologies for security, economic growth, transportation, education, social benefits and health care. It was created in response to a population boom that was affecting infrastructure and increasing carbon emissions and crime rates according to the Smart Vegas plan.
All over the city, sensors collect data, from traffic flow to intrusion. The data will also be released to help businesses develop more apps for residents and tourists.
With NTT data, Vegas uses sensors to count vehicles on the road, showing how many cars are idling at intersections. This will improve light timing, which will reduce carbon emissions. In the next phase, the streets will be smart enough to make their own decisions.
Vegas already has 80 autonomous intersections that can "talk" to connected cars to provide information at the time of light, and eight intersections with smart streets. There are also two smart parks, one of which is the Healing Garden, designed to commemorate the country music festival that was filmed in Mandalay Bay on October 1, 2017.
The smart parks project announced at CES 2020 will use cameras to track the movement of people in the green spaces of Las Vegas. Instead of the city having to send patrols all night, unwanted visitors trigger sensors to play an automatic voice message over the speakers. If they don't leave, a second, tougher message is played that the system triggers law enforcement.
Similar technology is used to stop people from climbing (and falling off) the sign at Stratosphere Casino, taking selfies, and providing data to the Parks and Recreation Department about how parks are used during the day ,
GoMed's new autonomous vehicle program brings together many of the city's smart junctions, vehicle infrastructure, and 5G investments, according to Sherwood. Self-driving vehicles are expected to use this technology to transport patients between medical facilities. It is designed to help people who do not have access to a car, but who need to take themselves or their children to a hospital.
"If you are a young single parent and have no means of transportation, these vehicles will help you get to the doctors in the area you need," he said.
Of course it won't happen right away; Sherwood says it is unlikely to start for another year or so.
Maggie Hallbach, head of Verizon's public sector smart city technology, told CNET that 5G would do a lot more to what autonomous vehicles can do. This is largely thanks to edge computing, which brings the data closer to where it is collected, which means less delay.
"Today with [autonomous] Vehicles, they mainly pick up clues that they see in the environment, "said Hallbach." But in the future you would expect 5G to become ubiquitous and able to pass information and instructions directly to the vehicle. "
Hallbach said Verizon "is actively working with many smart cities," including Vegas, as well as smart university campuses, business districts, venues, airports, and theme parks.
Vegas in 2025
One of the main goals of the Las Vegas project is to attract more people and businesses by improving amenities and making it an economically more profitable place to live and do business. Instead of Silicon Valley, Sherwood says, there will be a Silicon West in the future, and Vegas will be one of the capitals.
It's already happening, said Sherwood. Startups leave California to settle in the innovation center. It enables companies to conduct live tests in Las Vegas instead of developing theoretical products in a vacuum.
This has made a Japanese technology giant permanently present in the American desert, said Bill Baver, vice president of NTT Data. The Smart Cities program in Las Vegas is the first major research and development project that NTT has implemented outside of Japan, all because of the city's "openness to innovation".
"Because of their innovation zone and innovation district, we can say together how does this help the city, how does it help citizens and how does it help society as a whole," said Baver.
The innovation center attracted delegations from Turkey, France and Taiwan – exactly the day I was there. It sees visitors from cities and businesses worldwide all year round, Sherwood said. Another, much larger innovation center will open soon in Vegas. It will focus on autonomous vehicles and drone technology.
"We will be one of the cities in 2025 where everyone will be looking for a city to live in," Sherwood said. "Not just nationally, but internationally."