Welcome to Las Vegas, city of smart lights, self-driving shuttles and startups. Away from the glittering, casino-strewn area known as the Strip is a far more pedestrian-looking area. It's just a 15-minute drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, but it feels like a different world.
It's quiet downtown, because while the Strip was thronging with 200,000 extra visitors forlast week, the streets here were cold and empty. It didn't look like a city of the future.
Then someone pointed out a smart intersection to me, and I looked up, seeing nodes and cameras attached to a traffic signal. I guess smart cities will look less like something from Blade Runner and more like they do now, just with sensors hanging from everything possible -- street signs, bus shelters, mobile towers, buildings.
Las Vegas is one of many cities investing in smarter infrastructure, looking to make life easier for both residents and tourists under an ambitious technology plan. It's part of a broader trend that leverages technology like sensors, 5G networks, supercomputers and self-driving vehicles.
The heart of the project is the Las Vegas International Innovation Center, located in a nondescript office building on 4th Street in Downtown Vegas. The big glass windows are adorned with the logos of companies helping Vegas with its vision: AT&T, which deployed the smart lights; Dell, which handles edge computing; NTT Data, a Japanese tech company that helps analyze the data being collected; and Cisco, which helped with a self-driving cars project. Inside, the center is decorated with prototype smart street lights and scale models showing how parks and buildings are connected.
By 2025, Las Vegas plans to be "a peer to Silicon Valley," said Michael Sherwood, director of the Department of Information Technologies for the City of Las Vegas. He wants to make Vegas not only 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, with carriers like Verizon promising a bevy of cutting-edge devices coming out this year. But Vegas wants to go even further.
"We're creating our own private 5G network," Sherwood revealed exclusively to CNET. The city will use unlicensed spectrum, kicking off the project in the first quarter of this year for an initial test launch by summer 2020. It's working with multiple undisclosed partners as well as buying its own equipment and building out the network itself.
A private mobile network will help ensure everyone has equal access to connectivity, not just those living, working or going to school in the wealthier areas. "You can't be a smart city if you're not thinking about the populace," Sherwood said.
The network will be tested in a small pockets of the medical district, where its autonomous vehicles project is based. It's unclear whether it will only be used by smart cities infrastructure or whether residents will get to tap into it, too. But by using a private mobile network, Vegas won't have to pay monthly fees to carriers, meaning it can grow its smart city plans faster.
Bill Menezes, a senior analyst at Gartner, said the private 5G plan makes sense because it gives Vegas more oversight.
"The city can control the location and timing of 5G coverage to coincide with its requirements, rather than having to wait on a public network rollout," Menezes said. The city would also have access and control over the data, as well as siting and right-of-way advantages that carriers can't get.
Building a network comes at a price, Menezes said, but "there's definitely a value to owning the infrastructure" as long as the cost is comparable to using the existing 4G LTE and public Wi-Fi networks.
Las Vegas: Where the streets are smarter
Back in 2016, the Las Vegas City Council designated an area of downtown as its Innovation District. It's now used to test technology for safety, economic growth, transportation, education, social benefit and health care. It was created in response to a population boom that strained the infrastructure, as well as increasing carbon emissions and higher rates of crime, according to the Smart Vegas plan.
Sensors all over the city collect data, on everything from traffic flow to trespassing. The data is also made public so companies can develop more apps for residents and tourists.
With NTT Data, Vegas uses sensors to count vehicles on the road, so it can see 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 intelligent enough to make their own decisions.
Vegas already has 80 autonomous intersections that can "speak" with connected cars to provide light timing information and eight intersections with intelligent streets. It also has two smart parks, one of which is the Healing Garden developed in commemoration of the country music festival shooting at the Mandalay Bay on Oct. 1, 2017.
The smart parks project announced at CES 2020 will use cameras to track the movement of people throughout Las Vegas' green spaces. Instead of the city having to send patrols throughout the night, unwanted visitors will trigger sensors to play an automated voice message over loudspeakers. A second, sterner message will play if they don't leave, after which the system dispatches law enforcement.
Similar technology is being used to tell people to stop climbing on (and falling off) the sign at the Stratosphere Casino to take selfies and will provide data to the Parks and Recreation Department on how parks are being used during the daytime.
Pulling together many of the city's smart intersections, vehicle infrastructure and 5G investments is the new GoMed autonomous vehicle program, Sherwood said. The plan is for self-driving vehicles to tap into this technology to transport patients between medical facilities, and it's aimed at helping those who don't have access to a car but need to get themselves or their children to a hospital.
"If you're a young single parent, and you don't have transportation, these vehicles will help you get to the doctors in the area that you need," he said.
Of course, it won't happen right away; Sherwood says it's unlikely to start for another year or so.
5G will add much more to what autonomous vehicles can do, Maggie Hallbach, who heads up Verizon's smart city technologies in its public sector group, told CNET. And it's mainly thanks to edge computing, which will crunch data closer to where it's being collected, meaning less lag time.
"Today, with [autonomous] vehicles, they're primarily picking up cues they see in the environment," Hallbach said. "But in the future, you would anticipate as 5G becomes ubiquitous having the ability to then have information and directions being conveyed directly to the vehicle."
Hallbach said Verizon is "actively partnering" 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 Las Vegas' project is to attract more people and companies by improving amenities and making it a more economically viable place to live and do business. Instead of Silicon Valley, Sherwood predicts in the future, there'll be a "Silicon West," and Vegas will be one of its capitals.
It's already happening, Sherwood said. Startups are leaving California to set up shop in the innovation center. It provides a way for companies to do live tests in Las Vegas, rather than developing theoretical products in a vacuum.
This is what brought a Japanese tech giant to make a permanent presence 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 NTT has taken outside of Japan, and it's all because of the city's "openness to innovation."
"Because of their innovation zone and their innovation district, it allows us to work together to say, how does this help the city, how does it help the citizens and how does it help society as a whole in here," Baver said.
The innovation center has drawn delegations from Turkey, France and Taiwan -- and that's just on the day I was there. It sees visitors throughout the year from cities and companies worldwide, Sherwood said. Another, much larger, innovation center will be launched in Vegas soon. It will be focused on autonomous vehicles and drone technology.
"We'll be, in 2025, one of the cities everyone will look to as a city they want to live in," Sherwood said. "Not just nationally, but internationally."