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First Statewide Public IoT Network to Span Digital Divide in NY

The expense of fighting Covid-19 and state coffers depleted by business restrictions and outright closures has made countless new networking projects a bridge too far for blue and red states alike.

But amid the global pandemic, Cornell University in New York has secured a $!.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design and build a statewide IoT network. It will bridge the digital divide and set the stage for new and more efficient applications to all municipalities.

A model for state IT teams

The closely watched public IoT project will likely result in the first statewide IoT network in the U.S., making it a model for IT managers elsewhere in the country also looking to accelerate the introduction of IoT for all in the toughest of times.

Key to the innovative project is the use of the Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) architecture that uses lower-speed WAN links to connect far-flung devices such as sensors that use long-lifetime (10+ years) batteries to power the system.

Closing the digital divide?

The public IoT network plans to bridge the digital divide that exists between New York City in the east to small communities in upstate New York along the Canadian border. And while high-speed services in big cities across the country are table stakes, broadband connections are still a tough find in rural areas, which also suffer from spotty or no cellular service.

The grant’s abstract explains that the work is motivated by an imperative need to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas, which it says “has contributed not only to information disparities, but also greater social, democratic, educational, and economic disparities.” The research will test the concept of IoT networks as a public utility to bridge the digital divide. “This project explicitly sees rural communities as opportunities for developing new networked technologies which can leapfrog traditional wired broadband technologies and create new opportunities for local technological development and innovation.”

Getting started

In August, Cornell engineers and researchers landed the NSF grant. They will work with community partners in each county around New York through the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The entity, the CCE, has been described as a network of independent associations located in each county in the state and the boroughs of New York City. The organization teams with local communities “to translate research into practical projects through data-based programs and services.”

The game plan

“We aim to create a public Internet of Things model that works here and then becomes replicable for other states,” Max Zhang, a professor in Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, told the Cornell Chronicle. "We want to provide universal network coverage, ensure data privacy, promote responsible data-sharing, scale-up successful Internet of Things implementations, and spur technology innovation in underserved areas."

The chief goal of the IoT network project is to provide all New Yorkers access to the Internet. That is because while densely populated areas, suburbs, and major transportation routes are already being fitted with wireline and wireless broadband infrastructures, rural areas still suffer from spotty access to broadband and often lack cellular service.

“You need to create a reliable internet of things infrastructure to handle a digital world,” said Max Zhang, a professor in Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “This is an opportunity for rural communities. You cannot have a digital revolution in digital darkness.” 

With that in mind, the statewide IoT network should provide uniform network connectivity to a system that reaches all residents. What that is expected to do is use the LPWAN architecture to support a long potential list of IoT applications that have the following characteristics: long-range, low-power, and low-bandwidth.

The following anticipated IoT applications to be supported on the statewide net include:

  • Remote meter reading for utility firms
  • Traffic monitoring
  • Realtime road and flood monitoring
  • Crop and livestock monitoring for farmers
  • Building management

LPWAN selling points

The designers and creators of the New York statewide IoT network selected LPWAN technology for the network for several reasons.

  1. The technology is long since tried and true as a staple by entire vertical industries (oil and gas and utilities among them) to monitor and manage their pipelines and transmission facilities.
  2. LPWAN networks are anything but expensive as their core components; sensors and long-life battery-powered, attached devices are inexpensive can run for a decade without replacements.
  3. These battery-powered devices, such as sensors, transmit a small amount of data, typically to a central or regional location. This keeps bandwidth usage charges low.

Early returns

Early on, Tompkins County began providing its residents with free IoT access, according to Ken Schlather, executive director of the Tompkins branch of the CCE, who is expected to coordinate the networking project’s community engagement with each county in New York. He claimed a pilot program of IoT-enabled commercial buildings reported energy cost savings of between 15% and 30%, which he added, was similar to results from its other, larger studies.

The statewide IoT network undertaking is also an educational effort, wrote the NSF in the grant’s abstract. "This project not only creates the first introductory course in IoT at Cornell University but also expands the engaged learning opportunities to citizen across [New York State] through innovative, community-based learning hubs; a model that can be replicated across the U.S.”