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Opinion by Iain

Takeaways from the Intelligent Infrastructure Conference: How smart is smart, financing, the role of 5G and the Federal Infrastructure Bank

May 2, 2022 | As I write this, I am sitting at Topio Networks’ Intelligent Infrastructure conference in Austin.  Yes, for those of you keeping score, this is the second conference I have been to in Austin in the last few weeks, and I love it!  It is much better to have breakfast at home, hop in the car and drive downtown and then get home that night – no crowds at the airport, no TSA, no Uber/Lyft/taxi, no over-priced hotels.  Please, more industry conference in Austin!

OK, the Intelligent Infrastructure conference.  The audience and speakers are an interesting mix of state/local/municipal government, policy folks from DC, technology nerds, finance folks, physical infrastructure designers/vendors (the people who actually build roads and bridges and airports), smart city pros and a few industry analysts.  This diverse group has resulted in some interesting discussions but has also highlighted the various levels of understanding of the various technologies, or lack of understanding in some cases.

Throughout the two days, I have been building a list of takeaways and thoughts, especially as related to the wireless communications industry. My thoughts:

- In each infrastructure discussion, the need to have a clear, measurable use case is clear; this must be something that can be clearly communicated to consumers and politicians alike.      In this regard, intelligent infrastructure is no different from any other proposition: there must be a clear value.  Several speakers made the point that many technology vendors have not been successful just pitching technology and not including the business value.  

- Just how ‘smart' various infrastructure is varies.  One speaker talked about a new highway being built in one state (to remain anonymous to protect the innocent!) that combines the roadway, fiber, a gas pipeline, cell towers, and EV charging stations; this was labelled as ’smart’.  Sorry, but no.  I would call this infrastructure colocation; this example is simply using the same ROW to deploy various assets.  This is no different from deploying multiple MNO RANs on the same cell tower or pulling multiple fibers through the same conduit.

- What is ‘smart' is when sensors in the bridge or road, for example, are linked to edge compute and wireless connectivity to warn drivers of local conditions, collect relevant data, or provide value-added services.  Several speakers and exhibitors at the show discussed this and there were several demos of image and video recognition, for example.

- Privacy and security came up in most of the discussions at some point.  Some of these conversations got technical fast, but in general the point was that data needs to be protected and the protection needs to be clear – policies must be public, etc.  And the value discussion came back here again. One speaker noted that you should not talk about ‘facial recognition’ (to consumers or politicians) but instead refer to 'optical sensors used to provide security’, etc.

- 5G networks and services were included in many infrastructure discussions, many times as a source of revenue.  Several presentations talked about revenue from providing 5G cell site locations or from ‘data.’ I think this was referring to the 5G industry paying the infrastructure provider for data on how the infrastructure is being used.  Several speakers seemed to view the MNOs and wireless industry as a bottomless pit of revenue.  We all know this is not the case and it could be that the business models for some intelligent infrastructure projects are in for a rude awakening.

- Financing, financing, financing was the BIG discussion.  In short, who pays?  There were many comments and examples of P3s (public private partnerships) as ways to get intelligent infrastructure built, but these discussions immediately highlighted the challenges and issues with P3s.  But a more interesting presentation was from the president of the future Federal Infrastructure Bank (FIB).  The current plan is for this new bank, equivalent in structure to the Federal Home Loan Banks or Federal Farm Credit Banks, to be operational in 2023, assuming the bill passes through Congress, etc.  The FIB is interesting because it will be focused on infrastructure and this includes broadband and technology, for example.  

- The Federal Government is making a lot of money available and there are many headlines associated with this.  But there appear to be bottlenecks. Surprised? One speaker pointed out that approximately $150 billion in current infrastructure funding are held up because the relevant application or form had an error or was not completed correctly.  Everyone seemed to agree that there was demand for new infrastructure and that the PE firms and other investors are trying to get money to work, but there are issues that need to be addressed.  Getting dollars to work will take time.

In summary, a good conference that highlighted the intelligent infrastructure opportunity (big!), but also discussed the issues that need to be addressed (many!).  It was clear that one party in the ecosystem or value chain cannot address the problems and get solutions in the ground. It is going to take all parties working together and that is going to take time.

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