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A Smart City Future for Virginia’s Amazon HQ2 Neighborhood

Photo courtesy of James Quinn

(Bloomberg) —

Since Amazon.com Inc. announced it would build a second headquarters in Northern Virginia in 2018, developers and business groups have sought to transform Crystal City — in the part of Arlington County that’s been rebranded as National Landing — from a lackluster neighborhood of empty offices into an urban showcase of placemaking, sustainability and technology.

On Tuesday, the area’s lead developer laid out a vision with AT&T Inc. to build the country’s first “smart city at scale.” Developer JBG Smith will team up with AT&T to build a robust 5G network from the ground up within a four-mile zone that includes offices, residential and retail spaces, and Amazon’s forthcoming second headquarters.

The companies say the high-speed connectivity will lay the groundwork for National Landing to be a testbed for a host of urban innovations involving sensors, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technology: anything from self-driving cars, to “smart” lighting that can track air quality, to robotics that help health care companies better monitor their clients’ medication.

“I’d love to see this become a living lab of innovation,” says Mo Katibeh, senior vice president of AT&T Network Infrastructure and Build. 

In a post-pandemic future in which some office workers adopt a hybrid work schedule, the project aims to also connect residents in the area, which includes parts of neighboring Pentagon City and Potomac Yards, to “next-generation” 5G technology. 

“The shifts to more hybrid and virtual work will require better connectivity, better redundancy and higher speeds,” says Matt Kelly, chief executive officer of JBG Smith. An advanced digital infrastructure could enable more innovations, he adds. “Those won’t all have to take place in somebody’s office. It can be someone’s apartment.” 

AT&T aims to deploy some of the network infrastructure in the first half of 2022, and expand it as the community develops so the network design can be responsive to tenant needs. JBG Smith currently has 6.8 million square feet of existing office space, and 7.2 million square feet of additional development space. The hope is that the promises of a “smart city” — a broad term sometimes used to describe tech-laden neighborhoods — will help attract innovators and businesses to move in, along with new residents.

Already, Virginia Tech is slated to bring a 65-acre innovation campus to the area, while Amazon has unveiled plans for its $2.5 billion double helix glass office tower looking over some 2.5 acres of public green space. The National Landing Business Improvement District has also outlined plans for $4 billion worth of transit projects

If all goes as planned, a robust 5G infrastructure moves the area yet another step closer to becoming what the companies describe in their press release as “the most connected city in the country.” 

Beyond U.S. borders, other companies have ramped up their futuristic ambitions. Toyota recently broke ground on Woven City, proposed to be a sensor-laden, breathing laboratory for the future of autonomous vehicles at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan.

In some other places, though, the momentum for smart cities slowed during the pandemic. As Wired reported, projects in Columbus, Ohio — winner of the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge in 2016 — stalled last year, forcing organizers to rethink the very concept of a smart city. And in May 2020, Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs shut down its controversial two-year-long project to turn Toronto’s waterfront into its own kind of living laboratory, citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty” globally and in the city’s real estate market. Before that, the project faced heavy pushback from residents over concerns about privacy and the lack of transparency.   

Kelly and Katibeh said those examples serve as cautionary tales, but asserted that their approach puts consumers — and their expectations — first, and that they are committed to being transparent. “We’re not a data company,” Kelly says. “We’re a service company, and starting with that objective, I think, is one hugely important differentiator.”

For AT&T, the National Landing project will be a chance to build a 5G network from the ground up, using not only low- and high-frequency airwaves, but additional mid-band spectrum that’s capable of fast connections and broad reach. JBG Smith paid $25.3 million in September for licenses to use that spectrum. AT&T says it will integrate 5G antennas into street furniture and the sides of buildings to connect people and devices instantaneously.

The carrier has been expanding its 5G network in the U.S. for nearly two years along two paths. For most of the country, it is using low-band frequencies that carry signals over long distances but not at blazing speeds. In higher-traffic areas like stadiums, airports and campuses, AT&T uses millimeter-wave frequencies that carry data bits at fiber-network speeds but only over limited distances.

AT&T is racing with rivals Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. to roll out a 5G network. After a brief venture into entertainment, AT&T has vowed to focus on its wireless and broadband business. A so-called smart city running on the carrier’s 5G technology near the U.S. Capitol and close to Amazon.com Inc. and Boeing facilities, will serve as both a test bed for new applications and a showcase as AT&T hopes to add more metro areas to its list.

–With assistance from Scott Moritz.

To contact the author of this story:
Linda Poon in Washington at lpoon12@bloomberg.net

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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