The concept of a “smart city” that connects city street lights, parking spots, power and water meters, municipal transit services and other such nodes into a networked whole is a fascinating concept. But do city governments really want to take on the role of paying for the technology to make it happen and keeping it running for the next few decades?

Silver Spring Networks (SSNI) thinks that a managed service could help solve those problems. This week, the smart grid -- and now, smart city -- networking company launched a new “Network-as-a-Service” offering, promising to take on the costs and responsibilities of deployments, starting with smart street lights, but potentially expanding to a whole roster of connected devices.

“We’re taking all the responsibility of deploying the network away from the cities, and letting them just focus on the application,” Sterling Hughes, senior director of advanced technology, said in a phone interview. “That drastically simplifies a very complicated deployment into a few metrics: is the service on time [and] does the service work when they expect it to?”

Think of it as yet another take on the growing trend of financing and managing green technology projects to help spread their adoption. We’ve seen this third-party ownership model grow to dominate the residential solar PV market. But it’s also being applied to energy efficiency retrofits, plug-in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, customer-sited energy storage systems and networked city lighting projects.

However, this model hasn't yet been taken up by the companies contending in the nebulous field of smart city technology. That list includes giants like IBM and Cisco, which have helped coin the term with their extensive smart-city pilot projects around the world, as well as energy services and power equipment giants such as Schneider Electric, Siemens, Hitachi, Toshiba and General Electric.

Many pilot projects have shown that networking and collecting data across a cityscape can yield big improvements in asset management, operations planning and energy efficiency. But they're still costly and complicated to deploy and keep running, which could make a managed service offering -- particularly one that cities can get at low or no cost initially -- a wedge to open up further markets.

Where Silver Spring steps in is on the network side of things, Hughes said. “The concept of providing networking as a service isn’t particularly new,” he said. “What’s novel about this model for cities is that these problems are often pretty complex to implement.”

Silver Spring already manages the operations of some of its smart meter networks, such as the 4.5-million meters deployed by Florida Power & Light, though it hasn’t taken on the challenge of financing those projects upfront.

In the case of street lights, however, Silver Spring is already working with a host of partners, including large-scale players in the field that could be natural partners for that financing task. Those include Citelum, the French city lighting and electrical systems giant that’s working with Silver Spring to connect a planned 20,000-street-light deployment in Copenhagen, and Evesa, a French consortium that has tapped Silver Spring’s mesh networking for a smart street lighting pilot in Paris.

“You see a lot of cities worried about [things like], 'If I'm going to do this smart lighting application, or this smart metering application, and I think it’s going to cost $1 million, what guarantee do I have that it won’t cost $2 million or $5 million?'” Hughes said. “We have a lot of experience in smart grid, and we have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to cost.”

Starting with an LED street light replacement allows Silver Spring and its partners to take on the initial costs and charge cities on an ongoing basis, based on the premise that the resulting energy savings will more than make up for the city’s ongoing bills, he said. Silver Spring, for its part, will guarantee that the underlying network will perform to specifications, and manage the interconnection of different applications that make use of networked street lights’ capabilities, including remote monitoring and control, sensor data collection and predictive maintenance, to name a few.

From that point, “Smart city is very broad -- it spans everything from waste collection, to public Wi-Fi, to security cameras, to data analytics,” he said. “As a company that does networking infrastructure, we focus on applications that provide a very clear payback.” And, because Silver Spring remains the network manager, “Multiple departments within the city can leverage that network, because they don’t own it -- they own the service on top of it.”

One of the first services may be networked parking meters, or other systems that track parking availability, allow time-of-use pricing, automate payment and ticketing and the like, he said. This too isn’t a new concept. Foster City, Calif.-based startup Streetline has created smart parking networking technology that’s being piloted in 30 cities with partners including IBM and Cisco.

Others could include smart trash bins that can signal when they’re full, traffic lights that can collect and analyze data on travel patterns, wastewater and rainwater sensors to provide insight on how city water networks are operating, and a whole host of other potential endpoints.

Municipal utilities will have likely have energy management and metering in mind. Silver Spring is working with San Antonio city utility CPS to provide its network to connect smart meters, but with broader applications such as street lights on the future roadmap; it's also looking at other projects of that nature.

It will be interesting to watch how Silver Spring’s service offering is emulated by other players in the smart city space. Cisco, which is building its smart grid and smart city business on its core networking expertise, will be a particularly noteworthy potential competitor to watch.

In September, Cisco launched its “Smart+Connected City Wi-Fi” solution, meant to provide cities with a purpose-built set of networking gear and software for their needs. It has also set up smart city networks including street lights, parking sensors, municipal garbage trucks, building energy tracking and other systems in the French city of Nice and the Spanish city of Barcelona -- the same city where Silver Spring announced its new network-as-a-service offering this week as part of the 2013 Smart City Expo.