Las Vegas rolls the dice on a smart, data-driven future
As part of its smart city vision, Las Vegas has invested in a private LTE network and range of IoT initiatives
With its iconic, glittering and air-conditioned high-rises, Las Vegas rises out of a hostile, arid desert climate, standing as a testament to what can be done with the right combination of vision, resources, and hard work. A global tourism destination, the city can accommodate virtually any manner of indulgence at damn near any price point, making it fit to host a once-in-a-lifetime blowout or regular getaways. And it’s in a constant state of flux, although seemingly on the come-up at the moment with the recent addition of professional hockey and football teams (and maybe a pro basketball team soon…) All that to say, Vegas–somewhere I spend at least three or four weeks a year–has it all. And Michael Sherwood, the city’s chief information officer, wants to turn that nebulous “all” into datasets that can be leveraged to make the city more livable, cleaner, safer, and all around better.
I sat with the city’s CIO Michael Sherwood, along with a small group of analysts, during lunch at the recent Cisco Live event hosted in the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. As an aside, he has the coolest business card, if you can even call it that, I’ve ever seen; it’s a poker chip engraved with his info. Getting back on track, Sherwood oversees what is potentially America’s smartest, certainly it’s boldest, city as evidenced by connectivity-enabled and IoT projects we’ve tracked in these pages since we launched in 2017. As time has passed, lessons have been learned and Sherwood, his colleagues, and a host of technology partners have chipped away at scaling up.
Larger than one specific project or point solution, Sherwood kept revisiting the importance of generating, analyzing and actioning on data; as well as making that data available to residents and local businesses and institutions. He’s hoping to unlock some of the finer, longer-term points of an experiment of this size. For instance, does the city providing cellular access to students, both in K-12 education, adults looking to re-skill and even the unhoused community, have a correlation to lower levels of incarceration or recidivism? A big question and one hard to hammer into the mold of a traditional business case or ROI model, but certainly a worthy–and intuitively likely–exercise. This notion of taking a chance and seeing what happens while hoping for the best seems inextricably linked with the city’s own mythos. “You have to think about the what-ifs,” Sherwood told me. “That’s all I need. People want hope; I hope I can demonstrate that. It’s a bright future though. Las Vegas, as a community, is doing great things.”
One of those great things is a private LTE network that uses the CBRS band and serves both mobility and fixed wireless use cases. In late 2020 the city worked with vendors, including Terranet Communications and Baicells, to stand up a fixed wireless access network covering some 65-square-miles. Given the timing, the initial thrust was to connect students and schools to facilitate remote and hybrid learning as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But that was just the beginning as the network further supports a range of IoT-type sensors, cameras and so forth.
As the city and its partners deployed and continue to scale out the private network, Sherwood noted the importance of looking for existing municipal assets that can facilitate rapid deployment; things that are inherently geographically distributed like public parks and fire stations. And, of course, the invaluable yet large under-utilized streetlight—some of the streetlights in Vegas, in addition to being connected to power and having sites, are connected to the city’s fiber optic backbone. The combo of power, fiber and location opens up a lot of possibilities. Think streetlight as streetlightlight, as Wi-Fi hotspot, as cellular radio location, as sensor platform, etc…
Beyond pandemic-prompted remote learning, Sherwood is thinking bigger, looking ahead to trends around automation and workforce displacement. He said the local hospitality workforce is “ripe for disruption.”
But to be clear, “We’re not trying to be a telecommunications service provider,” Sherwood said. “We’re trying to be a workforce equilibrium and educational equilibrium.” Further, he said connectivity, good schools, good restaurants, nice public spaces, and the like, attract residents, businesses and investment to the area.
Big picture on municipal connectivity, “We look at it just like a sewer system. In the 10 to 15-year future, every city is going to need some type of connectivity platform. We’re not going to be late. Connectivity is at the heart of everything. The technology is becoming easier, it’s becoming less expensive…There are some great opportunities.” And, in a nod to the hosts, he noted that “everything is built on the Cisco platform as the base.”
In the case of the city’s smart city and attendant investments, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas as Sherwood said he’s regularly fielding calls from other municipal leaders seeking insight into their own futures. “Over the past six months we’ve probably had 70 or 80 cities contact us about private wireless,” Sherwood said. “I don’t know where it’s gonna go. It’s still in that new phase. I think cities are adjusting…It’s still a new technology for a lot of them. And IoT is still struggling to gain adoption.”
Another long-term project intended to put municipal data to work is the creation of a city-wide digital twin “where we can then model what might happen in 10 years from now,” Sherwood said. “What happens if 1 million people arrive? What would our roadways looking like? Taking all that data and being able to look at it in real time and create different scenarios, that’s helpful for planning the future.” When I asked him what the digital twin looks like today–and sort of having a good idea that the answer was spreadsheets–he said, “It’s not sexy like me. It’s kind of boring.” (It is spreadsheets). But accessing those spreadsheets via a 3D visual user interface is something that’s in progress.
With the exceptions of baseball, basketball, football, horse racing, soccer, cards, dice and roulette, I’m not much of a gambling man. But if I were, I’d bet on Las Vegas, with Sherwood guiding it, as a smart city winner. I’ve got a good feeling about it.