Riverside: Municipal Wi-Fi is Alive in California

Riverside, California, an innovative city of 300,000 in the eastern part of Los Angeles has been a broadband pioneer even though it sits in the shadow of tech centers like nearby Santa Barbara.   Riverside’s accomplishment as a city catching up with the information age was evident when it was selected as one of the top 7 Intelligent Communities Award in 2011 by New York-based Intelligent Community Forum.  

“It’s an honor to be selected as one of the top 7 cities in the world.  It comes down to a couple factors, what communities are doing with broadband, but... includes digital inclusion, innovation, knowledge workforce (of folks within your community) and marketing advocacy... We rank very high in all those categories.” - City CIO Steve Reneker [Gigabit Nation Radio]

The cornerstone the city’s SmartRiverside initiative is a free public wireless network which covers 78% of the city’s 86 square miles.  Established in 2007 by AT&T (which also offers DSL services in Riverside), the maximum speed of the network is 768kbps, which at just under 1Mbps is decent enough to surf the web and check emails.  However the road to providing free Internet access and bridging the digital divide wasn’t so easy for Riverside.  

The City issued a RFP in 2006 for a provider to deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network, with the goal of making the Internet accessible to users who can’t afford higher cost plans.  The City met with respondents and a speed of 512kbps or about half a megabit was initially quoted as an entry-level speed that would complement existing services rather than compete against them.  The contract was awarded to AT&T who hired MetroFi to build the network and charge the city a service cost of about $500,000 a year.  MetroFi went bankrupt after completing only 25 square miles and Nokia Siemens took over but only completed up to the present level of coverage. 

In 2007, the wifi network launched and began bridging the digital divide. Through the City’s digital inclusion efforts, not only were modest-income families able to obtain low cost or free PCs but also have means to use them with an Internet connection.  

After AT&T acquired a competitor and created AT&T Wireless Systems (AWS), it informed the city in 2009 that it was going to off-load the network, transferring it back to Riverside at no cost.  AT&T wanted out because it “didn’t sign up enough customers who would pay for premium service.” [Riverside takes over Wi-Fi network] Given that the contract stipulated the network could not be sold or leased to a private owner until after five years of operation, the City of Riverside’s only options were to find a new “sponsor,” pay for it, or shut it down.   MuniWireless followed the events closely and revealed the community’s split between a quality public service they depend on and the willingness to pay for it:

The city council will vote on 16 March 2010 to maintain the network, find a sponsor, or shut it down. Some people in Riverside do not want the city to spend money on the network given the city’s precarious financial state, but others who have been enjoying the free Wi-Fi service, don’t want it taken away from them (see my article about St. Cloud, Florida whose city council ran into stiff opposition from residents over the termination of free Wi-Fi service). People who have been financially crushed and are trying to save money by using the free Wi-Fi service (and canceling their DSL/cable subscriptions) are urging Riverside to keep it up and running. This is exactly the same situation that the St. Cloud city council faces today. [Residents Oppose Closing of St. Cloud's CyberSpot Wi-Fi Network]

Smart Riverside

The Riverside City Council voted to end the AT&T contract and now owns the equipment.  Time Warner is now the service provider and Minnetonka-based US Internet was selected to service and maintain the network.  The new 5 year contract has the city paying $5.48 million, or a little over a million a year to US Internet. [US Internet takes over Riverside citywide Wi-Fi network] [Press Release]

In the future, Riverside hopes to build out the network to near full 100% coverage.  It was rejected in both rounds of NTIA stimulus funds.  In the first round, the city was not rural and did not lack resources to implement broadband.  In the second round, it’s $8 milllion request for a middle mile intranet connection was rejected.  However Riverside will benefit from indirect programs that did receive funds such as the California Emerging Technology Funds [CETF NTIA page] which does digital literacy.  This bolsters the city’s existing digital inclusion and PC refurb programs for low-income families.