Dallas Morning News: Headed to Dallas’ West End? AT&T may someday help you find a parking spot

Karen Robinson-Jacobs, Dallas Morning News -- September 14, 2015

If you live, shop or work in Dallas’ historic West End district, telecom giant AT&T may someday help you find a parking spot.

Dallas-based AT&T Inc. is one of about a dozen companies and groups to announce a new public-private partnership Monday that is designed to use communications and data networks to help turn Dallas into a tech-savvy “smart” city.

The partnership, called the Dallas Innovation Alliance, was one of several initiatives across the country announced Monday at the White House Smart Cities Forum.

While the scope of the local project has yet to be determined, backers said it could involve everything from installing more smart meters in housing units to programs that can notify nearby motorists of an available parking place.

There is no universally accepted definition of a smart city. The concept basically involves combining technology and data to improve everything from health care and traffic flow to public safety and energy conservation.

Based on eight criteria, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan lists eight “smart cities” in the U.S. — including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco — but none in Texas. 

The new alliance aims to change that.

The scope of the effort in Dallas will be determined over the next several months by the alliance, a group formed at the impetus of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. Besides AT&T, the charter membership includes about a dozen corporations and groups such as IBM, Microsoft, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce along with Mayor Mike Rawlings and the city of Dallas.

The efforts initially will be focused in the West End, which already is a major hub for public transportation. Backers hope that programs put in place there can be replicated elsewhere in the city. The cost of the project — and who pays — will be determined once the scope of the initial project is established.

“By bringing together these groups we’ve taken the first step to develop and launch a concerted, cohesive ‘smart cities’ initiative in a specific area of Dallas,” said Trey Bowles, a co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, along with Jennifer Sanders, managing director at Perry Street Communications.

Bowles, who also is chief executive of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, said the “goal of this group is going to be to come up with a plan … so that we can launch and build and point to something that would make us a globally recognized ‘smart city.’”

For AT&T, the allure of the project is obvious. Tons of data carried across the communications company’s network could mean a windfall.

“Corporations put money in because they’re investing in a long-term … revenue-generating opportunity,” said Bowles.

The central thread that runs through the elements of the smart cities technology is the ability to transmit information, through fiber, a cellular network or Wi-Fi. That’s where AT&T comes in, potentially.

Michael Zeto, general manager for AT&T’s Smarter Cities Business unit, notes that a “smart city” has the potential to have “thousands of sensors, millions of sensors that are connected that pass data back and allow decisions to be made based on that data.

“The more things that are connected the greater the opportunity is for us to make money,” he said

From a public safety standpoint, sensors could control traffic lights and streetlights based on traffic patterns, he said. Or could notify police if gunshots ring out.

Bowles noted that some consumers may find this all a bit too Big Brother-ish.

He said consumers would have to volunteer to participate in any aspect of the program that involves data about a home or person.

“That sort of information is made available by choice of the consumer,” he said. “Nobody’s going to Big Brother you or spy on you.”