Maybe the most important end node for the internet of things of the future will end up being the parking spot.

Networking giant Cisco and smart-parking startup Streetline plan to test that proposition with two projects announced Tuesday morning. The two will connect drivers to up-to-the-minute data on parking spots in two busy Silicon Valley commercial corridors -- San Mateo’s 3rd Avenue, and San Carlos’s Laurel Street.

It’s the first partnership for the two companies, though not Streetline’s first deployment. The Foster City, Calif.-based startup is up and running in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Knoxville, Tenn., Reno, Nev. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. with its parking space sensors and management systems for city governments, private parking garages, and “Parker” app for iPhone and Android smart phone users.  

Streetline has raised two rounds of venture investment, including a $15 million round last year from investors including RockPort Capital Partners, Sutter Hill Ventures and Fontinalis Partners, a firm co-founded by Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford. In April, it set up a $25 million line of credit with Citi to finance its projects, which allow drivers (or, hopefully, less preoccupied passengers) to look up free parking spaces in their area, check pricing and special offers on hand from local garages, make digital payments and reservations, and map it all to their own GPS coordinates.

It’s not the only company applying big data and ubiquitous networking ideas to try and reduce time and fuel wasted looking for parking. Other companies have tried crowd-sourcing parking spot location apps, or aggregating parking garage availability data online, for example.

But Streetline is among the first companies to be mass-deploying a network of real-time sensors in city streets, CEO Zia Yusuf told me in an October interview at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas. The system costs about $200 per parking space upfront to install, and $20 per space per month to manage, he said. But cities can quickly recoup the embedded costs of these battery-powered, real-time sensor networks by fine-tuning parking management and pricing, as well as crunching the data for better urban and traffic planning, he said.

The City Network That Pays for Itself

So far, Streetline has used WirelessHART low-power wireless mesh networking technology from Dust Networks, a Bay Area startup that was acquired by Linear Technology last year, to link its nodes, which are embedded in parking meters or in the pavement itself. Siemens has been the startup’s partner on deployment and project management, and IBM, which named Streetline its 2010 global entrepreneur of the year, provides the data analysis tools to crunch all the data from parking spaces, garage booking systems, and the thousands of mobile users of Streetline’s Parker app.

With Cisco, Streetline can now incorporate its technology to an array of network devices, including multi-communications capable routers like those Cisco has built for the smart grid. That provides a way to incorporate Streetline’s data flow into Cisco’s smart grid wireless mesh networks being deployed via partners like Itron, Elster and Alstom, as well as SCADA systems at the heart of utility networks -- and, of course, to the cloud at large. Cisco is also one of a number of IT giants, such as IBM, Intel, Infosys, Microsoft and the like, working on “smart city” projects that link municipal services and networked sensors to better manage time, money and energy.

Of course, there’s a big difference between networking IT assets like laptops and smart phones, and networking the world of relatively simple, battery-powered devices around the home, office, or city street. The latter network has to be built to keep power-sipping devices attuned to one another, as well as the system’s needs, with an elegance that Wi-Fi or cellular networks don’t need to worry about.

“The internet of everything is where Cisco is focused,” Hardik Bhatt, director of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities initiative, said in a Monday interview. “The challenge is, connecting all of these unconnected things out in the street… that’s why we joined with Streetline, to allow us to build this network for the city.”

Parking, in turn, represents “a very interesting killer app” for getting the network to pay for itself, Kurt Buecheler, the startup’s vice president of business development and general manager of its ParkEdge (i.e., parking garage) business, said. When it comes to major revenue resources, “a city has taxes, then parking, then maybe something else, maybe nothing else,” he said. That makes parking a natural focus of city planners and budgeters alike.

Solving Parking’s Real-Time, Big Data Problem

At the same time, up to one-third of a city’s traffic consists of people trying to find a place to park, according to studies -- a maddening level of inefficiency in our transportation system that could be corrected, if street-level data can be collected, sent to the cloud and handed back to users in a timely fashion -- say, every minute or so.

Streetline’s system can pay for itself via improved enforcement, faster maintenance and repair and other such cost reductions, Buecheler said. But it can also discover new efficiencies and new revenue streams -- say, by linking local mall or restaurant specials to parking reservations, or guiding you to garages that offer lower rates to fill empty spaces, he said.

Then, once you have this network in, with these revenue streams driving it, “you have an easier opportunity to put a sensor on a water pipe, on a gas valve,” he said. “The world opens to these markets where they don't necessarily have a revenue model.”

Cisco and Streetline haven’t revealed what other types of street-level-to-cloud network and data analysis applications they’re eyeing for their joint deployments in San Mateo and San Carlos, which are relatively small compared to Streetline’s largest in LA and DC. First off will be simple applications, such as providing Streetline’s Parker app via Cisco’s Wi-Fi network in downtown San Carlos.

Beyond that, there are potential applications in devices ranging from streetlights -- another big-budget municipal item that can see big savings through networked sensors and controls -- to trash cans that tell the city when they’re full, Bhatt said by way of example. Streetline, for its part, is talking with various potential partners in the mobile and automotive space, Buecheler said, though he wouldn’t provide further details.