Kansas City is the latest smart city battleground

Kansas City, Missouri, is weighing private-sector bids for an ambitious, comprehensive smart city public-private partnership that will oversee a gamut of next-generation technologies—everything from an integrated data analytics platform as well as support and expansion of internet-of-things sensors and supporting wireless networks.

The city is the latest in a long line of locales looking at ways to use technology—and technology vendors—to add efficiency, security, safety and new services for employees and residents. And for the nation’s wireless players, the trend could unlock major new revenue streams as cities look to connect and manage a wide range of objects to wireless networks.

Kansas City’s current RFP (Request for Proposals) stands as one of the biggest current smart city projects that’s up for grabs. The RFP would implement the second phase of the city’s smart city initiatives. The first phase was implemented at a public-private value of $15 million over the past two years alongside the creation of a new downtown KC Streetcar line. With participation from the likes of Sprint, Cisco and Verizon, Kansas City’s initial smart city phase provided free Wi-Fi in a 54-square-block area as well as smart information kiosks and smart streetlights along the streetcar route.

Indeed, Kansas City has earned a national reputation as a smart city innovator.  The city has about 460,000 residents in a metro area of 2.2 million. In 2012, it was the first Google Fiber city, along with neighboring Kansas City, Kans., and the region now has 8,000 miles of fiber-to-the-home capable of gigabit speeds.

Further, the private sector response to the city’s new smart city RFP has been impressive: 160 people attended a preproposal conference in June and the city extended the due date for proposals from July 31 to Aug. 31.

Even so, city officials aren’t saying how many bids were received or when the process will wrap up.  “The selection committee is hard at work and that means we can’t really say much until we are ready to make an announcement about the selected partnership,” said city spokesman Chris Hernandez via email.

“We are certainly excited about the expansion possibilities which will help us bridge the digital divide and bring economic development to important communities in our city,” Hernandez added.

Boston-based analyst and consulting firm IDC was hired by the city to author the RFP. IDC analyst Ruthbea Clarke said by email that she couldn’t offer comment on the progress of the bidding review. There “could be RFP addendums and other modifications in this process,” she said. The RFP grants the city up to 180 days to review bids.

The city’s 83-page RFP appears to leave many decisions up to vendors regarding the business model they would use in dealing with the city and the delivery of services.  A key difference from other smart city RFPs is that the city calls for smart city “program management” from the winning bidder.

According to the RFP: “The City seeks to partner with a firm to provide a fully integrated suite of sensors, networks, and data and analytics platforms that will result in the City becoming the first true Smart City in the world.”

The city also said it would entertain financing proposals designed to “enable models that generate sufficient revenue to … reduce the financial risk and funding by the city for the city’s smart projects.”

The future smart city program manager would establish, integrate and manage the development, operations and maintenance of these projects:

  • downtown connected corridor expansion
  • expanded smart parking
  • smart intersections
  • smart and connected outdoor lighting
  • data-driving public safety (particularly to deal with gun-related violence)
  • smart water metering infrastructure; connected public health
  • and an integrated data analytics platform.

The program manager would be expected to develop a long-term strategic plan for these areas and others focused on the next 10 to 30 years.

Carriers and other potential bidders

Major networking, wireless and IT infrastructure and cybersecurity providers were expected to bid on the RFP, including the nation’s largest wireless carriers. However, none would comment.

Sprint already owns and operates 328 Wi-Fi access points that offer free downtown Wi-Fi under a contract—part of the city’s first phase of its smart city efforts—that lasts another three years.  There are also 178 streetlights maintained by the city with sensors from Sensity, now a part of Verizon. Data analytics now comes to the city from startup Xaqt using the AWS cloud to analyze 4,000 data sets regarding crime, employment, weather and other data.

Verizon worked with Xaqt to launch the online data portal to show open parking spaces in the downtown. In an IoT report issued last year, Verizon noted that the city’s existing IoT technology covers 2.2 miles of city streets, expected to increase to 10 miles in coming years.

Verizon would not comment on whether it filed an RFP with Kansas City, but did issue a statement.  “We look at all efforts to create more technologically advanced and digitally inclusive places to live—whether that be through RFP response, larger public-private partnership, or other areas,” said Lani Ingram, vice president of smart communities for Verizon. “We’re seeing increased interest in Verizon’s smart communities solutions.”

Cisco, which has also worked in recent years in Kansas City, would not comment on the latest RFP, but made an executive available for interview. 

“We’re actively looking at all opportunities out there and what’s the best approach for a win-win with cities,” said Rebecca Chisolm, the U.S. public sector director for Cisco’s state, local and education business. Cisco now refers to the smart city market as the “smarter communities” market to reflect the regional planning often involved when cities work with counties and states.

“There aren’t many RFP’s we walk away from,” Chisholm added.  “We’re very optimistic about this market and very committed to it.”

Chisholm said the number of smart city RFPs could grow to 250,000. Some are small and specific for Wi-Fi, smart park or smart lighting projects, but others were broad in scope and large. “The number of opportunities is a bellwether,” she said. “It’s eye-popping.”

For example, cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico, appear to be interested in financing schemes that take the costs saved with modern technology, such as LED lighting, to finance other smart technologies such as sensor and camera technology capable of reading license plates to reduce car theft, she said.

Cisco has worked with Albuquerque on a smart city networking architecture called Kinetic for Cities, while that city partnered with Cisco partner Citelum Group on the LED streetlight conversion.

“Smart city interest continues to grow,” IDC’s Clarke said. “We have seen growth since last year with continued spending on projects and more and more work in the strategic planning stages as a foundation for future initiatives.”