How Governors Island became the launchpad for NYC's 5G initiative

Michael M. Samuelian, president and CEO of Governors Island, talked about the race to bring Wi-Fi connectivity to the park, and the larger mission to create a smarter city.

Michael Samuelian, president and CEO of Governor's Island, talked with TechRepublic about the effort to bring 5G connectivity to the park, and ultimately, all of New York City:

Samuelian: Governor's Island is a 172 acre former military base that is about halfway between lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. We're largely a recreational destination for New Yorkers. We've got nearly a million New Yorkers that visit us between the months of May and October to recreate and play and relax in a car-free environment. We've got about a million and a half square feet of historic buildings in the historic district, which range from small single family houses to large historic barracks. But we're largely a park that people come and relax in a car-free environment to get away from the city.

When I arrived here about a year and a half ago, we realized that we didn't have any Wi-Fi at all. And as we increasingly get more people visiting us, it was a noticeable omission that we didn't have technology that really supported the things that they wanted to do or the future tenants that we're going to invite here. So what we saw was it was a great opportunity to have neutral platform where we could basically start from scratch. So we created the challenge to basically create a platform that folks could begin to look at. What are the most innovative technologies, starting in 2017, that you would begin from the ground up.

So the challenge was inviting the tech community to say what would you do with this neutral platform where you could bring the most innovative technology into the middle of one of the densest cities in North America. We believe that 5G is the next generation of what Wi-Fi and connectivity will be, so we saw Governor's Island as a great platform for doing that, since the trust is a type of entity which is very unique in America in that we control both the open spaces, the buildings, the trees, the landscape. So it's basically one stop shopping in terms of how you can deploy the most innovative technology in the most optimal way. So what we've invited some of our respondents to do is to think holistically and comprehensively about how you can deploy your system which has a minimal footprint, which can be deployed very, very quickly, and very affordably, and be a real test bed for what the future of 5G and connectivity should be.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What we did is we invited the world. We created a challenge to say, "What would you do to bring connectivity to Governor's Island?" We invited people from around the world, and around the country, and around the city to look at the island and say, "What type of technology is going to be the future for our generation?" And what they were able to do, we had about three dozen respondents who looked at and were interested in what technology should come here. We narrowed that field down to about 12, who wrote us proposals on how they would actually bring technology to the island, and how they would deploy it. And then we finally, we narrowed that crowd down to three, who actually tested it here on the island and how they would look at bringing connectivity to Governor's Island. And then the test bed, which we did in the winter in this year, only two of the three finalists could make their system work. So then we entered into final negotiations with the winner to figure out how we could actually deploy this technology in the most optimal, fast, and efficient way.

Interestingly, line of sight was one of the challenges that we found. Some folks thought that on paper, it looked like they could connect between where their antenna was and where the island was. But one of the three, as I pointed out, wasn't able to connect. So I think it was getting optimal line of sight, and actually getting the technology to work, because something like trees do get in the way. And yet, the fact that we have trees here was a way that people could begin to look at how they could actually locate the antennas and the radios in order to provide the best signal.

Well I think what was probably most unexpected is that we went down to two finalist who were basically neck to neck when it came to both the technology and the deployment. So in the end, we ended up going with the winner, who actually had the fewest number of radios to get us the best system. So we wanna have basically a light footprint. The idea of the challenge was what can we do for the next three to five years to truly build kind of a foundation for the future. So having someone that was nimble enough to have the lightest footprint, yet with the most rigorous signal, that was the winning combination.

SEE: The world's smartest cities: What IoT and smart governments will mean for you (TechRepublic)

What's unique about the trust is that we own the landscape and the buildings, and all of the infrastructure. So we were able to give the winner a real platform to say that you could put the radios in buildings. You could put them on light poles. You could put them on infrastructure. You could put them on landscape. And we gave them a very flexible palette, which I hope is inspiration for the rest of the country when you look at where technology should be placed. And we shouldn't just limit it to properties that we actually happen to own or control. So the trust is this unique entity, much like a college or university, wherein while we're responsible for the management and maintenance, we're also responsible for all of the physical structures, including the landscape. So we were able to give the competitors a real kind of open platform where they could innovate in a way that you probably aren't able to do in many American cities, where you have this vulcanized ownership of the landscape versus transportation infrastructure versus buildings. But here on Governor's Island, we are kind of a platform for innovation in that we can say to somebody, "You can go wherever you want and actually optimize the location of that technology.

So to me, you know, we're already in a smart city. To me, you know, Uber, and Lyft, and Seamless (a food delivery service) are a smart city technology. So one of the things that I've learned is that a smart city is what you do with the technology. So having a rigorous infrastructure to allow people to innovate, to experiment, to make mistakes, to create great companies that actually make the user the center of gravity. So I very much believe that the smart city puts the user in the center, and that technology is really in service of that user.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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