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Comcast quietly launched a network that could make Philly a ‘smart cities’ leader

It's called machineQ, a low-power, wide-range network optimized to enable IoT technologies. Consider it an investment in Philadelphia's civic infrastructure.

Comcast HQ. (Photo by Flickr user Ryan Hallock, used under a Creative Commons license) has partnered with Comcast to produce the machineQ hackathon and reviewed this article before publication.

Building a “smart city” takes four core ingredients. The first three: a strong culture of civic engagement, a deep pool of tech talent and the support of private and public institutions.

But unlike their counterparts abroad, American cities are still missing the fourth piece of the puzzle: the right infrastructure to optimize smart-city technologies.

In Philadelphia, Chicago and the Bay Area, Comcast is betting on the right infrastructure being Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWAN).

It’s called machineQ, and here’s how works: The network utilizes long-range (LoRa) technologies to connect to sensors. Those sensors can be programmed to interact with the devices they’re installed upon, such as water meters or dumpsters, to collect specific data. machineQ’s network then manages the complexity of getting that data back to an application cloud infrastructure and/or to end users.

With the launch of machineQ, Comcast has become the only major service provider in the U.S. to build a network of this kind.

Want to get an electronic read on a water meter? LoRa can do that.

Want to be notified when a dumpster is full and needs to be emptied? LoRa can do that, too.

Want to better track the efficiency of trains or buses on a transportation system? Check. LoRa.

“LoRa technologies are able to send a small bit of data a very long range and do it very efficiently in terms of cost and battery life,” said machineQ’s product strategy lead Bryan Witkowski. “It’s increasingly easy to integrate into existing devices and create new ones from scratch.”

Here’s the fun part: Comcast wants you to build on it.

“If you’re a technologist or a startup and want to develop on this technology, it’s fairly democratized,” said Witkowski.

Most LoRa networks that already exist in the States are privately owned and limited in scope. Comcast’s machineQ, on the other hand, is designed to be widely accessible and set to scale across the company’s existing footprint.

LoRa technology has been deployed in over 35 countries and there is a rich ecosystem available for developers to tap into.

Consider it an investment in Philadelphia’s civic infrastructure.

“We want to get the technology in developers’ hands and allow them to build and improve on their solutions,” Witkowski said. “And we want to provide the tools and resources to help the development community successfully integrate them.”

Not thrilled by the idea of building smart dumpsters and water meters? Urbanists might take an interest in LoRa’s potential to track deeper bike share data or reduce traffic congestion by building solutions for the city’s parking meters.

Practical solutions have already been built on the machineQ pilot, too. Witkowski said a group of Penn students who experimented with the nascent network this past fall developed an accelerometer prototype that can detect the stability of bridges.

machineQ is the first step toward establishing Philadelphia as a national leader in smart city technologies, and developers will have a chance to dive in on June 9 and 10 during an IoT hackathon hosted by the machineQ team and at the Comcast Center.

(Slots are filling up fast, so hurry up and RSVP.)


Besides making city services more cost-effective and responsive, Witkowski was excited by the network’s potential for unlocking civic data.

“Weather patterns, air quality — we can pull this data together for others to innovate on top of,” he said. “There are a lot of data scientists chasing the IT. This is an enabler to get so much more data back to the digital world.”

Companies: Comcast

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