Power-sipping San Francisco network could have IoT devices buzzing

The city will install antennas at its libraries for the low-power, wide-area network

A wireless network planned for San Francisco could once again make the local library the best place to go for information.

The data collected there won’t be much fun to read, but it may help consumers, businesses and local agencies take advantage of connected objects. The city agreed to install antennas at its libraries as part of a pilot project by French vendor SigFox to build a network for the Internet of Things. Each antenna will cover a broad swath of the city, and it could allow San Francisco to expand the IoT services it offers today.

The city is no stranger to IoT. It already uses connected sensors and meters to determine the demand for parking on certain streets and periodically adjust hourly rates so drivers are more likely to find a space when they arrive. Rates go up on more crowded blocks and down on less crowded ones, but no more than once per month. The program is active in seven pilot areas around the city and uses an app to show drivers the current rates.

Through the deal with SigFox, San Francisco hopes to provide more efficient city services while attracting more tech startups, of which it already has a bumper crop.

Some proponents of IoT say it could transform the way city governments operate. Urban infrastructure like parking meters and traffic lights can be networked for automation and for collecting data about long-term trends. The city of Chicago uses GPS (global positioning system) to track its more than 400 snowplows in real time and gives that information to its residents through a smartphone app.

SigFox’s LPWAN (low-power wide-area network) technology represents a slow but energy-efficient way to communicate. The company has already built LPWANs in France and other countries, and it hopes eventually to cover large parts of the U.S. The San Francisco deployment will be the largest of ten city networks SigFox plans to build around the country.

LPWANs are similar to cellular networks but designed for IoT equipment such as sensors and meters. Those devices typically need to be small and to run for years on one battery. Low-power networks make that possible while delivering less bandwidth than cellular -- less than 1Kbps, in the case of the SigFox U.S. network -- but enough for the IoT gear. SigFox faces several LPWAN rivals, including the LoRa Alliance and backers of a low-power form of LTE.

As one of the centers of the U.S. digital economy, San Francisco has made several moves to build out advanced network infrastructure. In 2006, it made a deal with EarthLink for a Wi-Fi network to blanket the city, but that project failed when EarthLink pulled out of the Wi-Fi business. More recently, the city built a free Wi-Fi network along its central Market Street and in parks and public buildings. There is also a growing fiber network among city facilities.

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Stephen Lawson

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