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Fiber expansion paves way for V2X technology in Colorado

Colorado wants to enable highway automation by building smart, connected infrastructure it says can save lives. But to get roadside devices online throughout the state, it's going to need a bigger fiber optic network.

The Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT, anticipates that, by 2022, as many as 4 million connected vehicles will travel the state at any given time. And with smart car models from manufacturers like Tesla and Cadillac already on the road -- and the promise of self-driving vehicles on the distant horizon -- CDOT has thrown its plans for a robust vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, ecosystem into gear.

V2X technology allows networked communications among smart cars and public infrastructure, other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and trains -- adding up to what longtime IT and network engineering pro Bob Fifer refers to broadly as highway automation.

Fifer, infrastructure and business development manager for CDOT's intelligent transportation systems branch, said he believes V2X technology and the wealth of data it generates can help Colorado reduce traffic congestion, maximize operational efficiency and improve overall mobility.

Most importantly, Fifer argued it could also help prevent the vast majority of fatal accidents in Colorado. Research from the U.S. Department of Transportation supports his claim, suggesting connected vehicles could eliminate more than 80% of crashes that don't involve driver impairment.

"We are focused on using technology to improve the commuter experience, as well as to save lives," Fifer said.

His team oversees all of the state's intelligent transportation system (ITS) devices, including analytical cameras, variable message boards, car counters, weather monitors, ramp meters, traffic signals and more. The team envisions a future in which smart infrastructure -- made up of ITS devices deployed on fiber in an edge computing topology -- communicates in real time with connected cars via cellular technology or dedicated short-range communication.

When traffic on a busy freeway unexpectedly stops, for example, intelligent infrastructure could warn approaching cars to slow down -- thus preventing a possible high-speed pileup. In another use case, CDOT's roadside devices would automatically contact emergency responders if a vehicle's airbags have deployed, directing them to the exact location of the crash. Or, they could alert maintenance crews if several cars' antilock braking systems have activated on a particular stretch of road, indicating the presence of ice.

For CDOT to realize its vision of extending V2X technology throughout the state to form a connected internet of roads, it first needs a widespread fiber optic network to support it. Securing broadband in rural areas has traditionally posed a challenge, with telecommunication companies reluctant to invest heavily in regions with a limited customer base.

In his business development role, Fifer works to address this problem by facilitating out-of-the-box public-private and public-public partnerships. For example, providers must compensate the state for the right to lay fiber along government-owned rights of way -- the strips of land on either side of a road. Historically, these fees could increase the total cost of deployment by as much as 20% to 100%, according to carrier comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission.

To lower the cost barrier and, thus, encourage providers to expand broadband to less populous regions, Fifer proposed a different form of compensation in which CDOT exchanges right-of-way use for fiber, rather than funds. So, when a partner telecom company deploys new cable along a Colorado roadway, it simply lays some for the state, too. Fifer called these V2X technology-driven partnerships a "win-win-win."  

"The telecommunication company wins, because they hit new markets. Our constituents win, because they get broadband and better cell coverage in rural parts of the state," he said. "And it provides us the ability to turn up networks, put up ITS devices, install cameras and meet our mission of improving highway automation."

In other instances, CDOT is itself deploying new fiber using federal grant money or state and local funds. CDOT has 1,400 miles of right-of-way cabling -- and counting -- which can support V2X technology. Fifer's team views the fiber as infrastructure that any private enterprise can lease and light.

Just like UPS uses our highways to deliver your online purchases, a carrier provides their services over the fiber.
Bob Fiferinfrastructure and business development manager for CDOT's intelligent transportation systems branch

"Just like UPS uses our highways to deliver your online purchases, a carrier provides their services over the fiber," Fifer said, adding that broadband expansion also drives economic opportunity and social equality in traditionally underserved, rural areas -- closing the infamous digital divide. He pointed out that many of the state's ski resorts sit off of small, rural highways -- high-priority V2X targets, thanks to tourism traffic.  

"We need highway automation technology along these smaller roads to get [visitors] to their destinations," Fifer said.

Fiber expansion for V2X technology would also mean high-speed broadband access for the mountains' year-round communities. In turn, better connectivity can make relatively isolated places viable, year-round homes for wealthy telecommuters.

"Back in the day, people said, 'I need a large manufacturer,' or, 'I need some big employment center to come into my town to keep it alive.' Not anymore," Fifer said. "If you have reliable, available and affordable broadband services, you can attract high-income [residents] who provide a wealth of economic development for rural communities."

Fifer described how the arrival of high-speed internet, coupled with the development of a local arts district, recently transformed one small, struggling Colorado community.

"Techies started moving above the galleries and spending their money on art. And more artists moved in, because they had a source of income," he said. "The entire community was completely revitalized."

This was last published in January 2019

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