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Smart Things, Dumb Cities, and Other Great Things I Learned at the Wi-Fi Global Congress

Dennis Jones

Smart Things, Dumb Cities and Other Insights from the WBA's Fall 2015 Wi-Fi Global Congress

Well, going to the Wi-Fi Global Congress, as I learned, might not be like going to the Super Bowl, but it’s exactly like going to the Wi-Fi Global Congress. Yes, a sea of name tags and suspect coffee; but also invaluable insight into a booming technology space. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA,) a Wi-Fi industry association, hosts this bi-annual global conference, devoted to all things Wi-Fi. This half-year’s conference, my first, took place in San Jose, the very epicenter of Silicon Valley, and commanded a veritable who’s who of smart technology luminaries.

Media is pretty much daily ablaze with exciting news facts about Wi-Fi’s imminent global domination –now, for instance, an astonishing 50% of all Internet traffic either begins or ends on a Wi-Fi Network – so I was pretty keen to dig below the media headlines to discover just how Wi-Fi was becoming as synonymous with connectivity as cellular.

And as it turns out, Wi-Fi does mean quite a bit more than just the free hotspot you need on the go, even though that’s an important piece of the Wi-Fi experience. Wi-Fi has actually become the conduit for an ever more connected existence, from smart cities, to smart cars, to smart homes. Wi-Fi is the indispensable technology that’s connecting people to the things that are making their lives easier.

So, what about the talks?

Well, there were plenty of those, especially about the connected city, which was a huge topic of discussion. In his presentation, Khanh Russo, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Innovation for the city of San Jose, proved why San Jose made such a fitting conference host. San Jose, facing a population explosion over the next few decades, has had to innovate using smart technologies to deliver quality services to its citizens. Russo listed some of the city’s smart solutions, highlighting the pilot partnership with anyCOMM, a Sacramento County-based startup, now providing the city sensors to monitor traffic data as well as sense movement on roads and sidewalks. San Jose Clean is another way the city government is using creative technological solutions to get closer to its citizens. San Jose Clean is an app that allows city residents to report graffiti to the city simply by sending a picture and dropping a location pin.

While San Jose innovates “smartly,” some cities just aren’t using technology efficiently, at least that was the substance of the next talk, delivered by iPass CEO, Gary Griffiths. In his presentation, provocatively entitled, “Smart Things, Dumb Cities,” Griffiths called for restraint when it came to the meteoric rise of the Internet of Things (IoT,) which he predicted would create more economic value than the Internet itself. He began by reminding the audience of the go-go years of the dotcom era, which produced some clunkers like Zapata and purple.com. Indeed, not all tech ideas are created equal.

Griffiths mused whether some of the same excesses of the dotcom era would come to define the IoT age, especially if governments became final arbiters over the management of technology. And he pointed to a whole series of smart technologies that cities have leveraged, well, stupidly. For instance, the lack of street parking in most major cities has reached mini-crisis point; and luckily, the sensory technology is out there to alert drivers to vacant parking spots. However, some cities aren’t using that technology to alleviate congestion but instead to ticket cars that have overstayed their welcome.

“Dumb” parking isn’t the only thing giving Griffiths pause as IoT ramps up. The private sphere is proving more than capable of coming up with its own set of dumb implementations of smart technologies, as the parodic blog, the Internet of Useless Things, chronicles with its ribald list of faux-IoT devices.

Well, IoT never kept me up at night until Griffiths capped his talk with a vision of SkyNet, the Superintelligence system from Terminator that breaks loose of its human handlers and wreaks havoc. And I’ll say pretty much the same thing about experiencing the Wi-Fi Global Conference. Wi-Fi never kept me up at night – except, of course, when my router broke – but now I’m in for some sleepless nights, pondering where the future of Wi-Fi will take us.

Someone, please pass the Benadryl.

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