Moreno Valley Considers Extending Public Fiber and Wireless Networks

Nestled in Southern California’s Inland Empire is the city of Moreno Valley which goes by the maxim: "People, Pride, Progress!” Now, city officials are looking to live up to the motto by moving forward with a plan to expand Internet access to residents by utilizing 35 miles of fiber assets and 11,000 city utility poles to extend public Wi-Fi access to as many homes as possible.

Home to over 213,000 residents, the city of Moreno Valley is in the beginning stages of developing a Master Plan to extend its existing fiber and wireless networks. The goal of the plan, being completed by Magellan Advisors, is to leverage city-owned assets to expand Internet access and lower the cost of connectivity for public-sector organizations, businesses, and community anchor institutions.

The Master Plan calls for a focus on expanding Moreno Valley’s municipal network in a way that would promote economic development; support education, healthcare, and public safety in the city, and generally improve quality of life for residents living in an increasingly interconnected world. 

Moreno Valley and Magellan, a national consulting firm, are currently in the first phase of assessing the feasibility of the project and developing the Master Plan, which is anticipated to be complete by the end of the year.

Phase 1 of the plan consists of conducting an inventory of broadband assets, interviewing city staff and other major stakeholders (such as larger hospitals, school districts and warehousing groups), conducting online surveys to understand current broadband availability, and putting together a cost-benefit analysis.  

“Putting that whole picture together is what Magellan Advisors is helping us do. They’re taking a look at everything we have - what’s connected, what’s almost connected but not quite. They’re going to develop a Master Plan and give [the city] suggestions as to what we could do, so we can place assets more intentionally,” Steve Hargis, the city’s Chief Information Officer told ILSR in a recent interview.

When and if the final plan is approved, the city will then embark on Phase 2 of the project: secure funding and issue a RFP seeking bids from companies to build the necessary infrastructure as laid out in the Master Plan. 

Engaging the Private Sector to No Avail

While city officials are pursuing a municipally-owned and operated network, they are also open to improving broadband through a public-private partnership, though the city hasn’t had much luck engaging private Internet Service Providers (ISPs). 

“We’ve looked at public-private partnerships for a few things in the past,” Hargis told ILSR. “Those haven’t really worked out. The way the private sector wants to monetize the network just hasn’t been very appealing to the city."

As of yet, incumbent providers have not jumped at the opportunity to partner with the city because it’s been difficult coming to an agreement on what ought to be done, as the city’s goal is to advance digital equity and economic development, while, Hargis said, private ISPs are focused exclusively on short-term profits. 

Moreno Valley has also attempted to engage local businesses, asking shops and strip malls to participate in the city’s free Wi-Fi project, called “I Love MOVAL”, by sharing their bandwidth, free of charge, with the public. “That’s been a very difficult sell so far, the idea sounds good, but not to the shop owners who would have to share their Wi-Fi,” Hargis said. 

Lessons Learned from Riverside

Moreno Valley is closely tied to the neighboring city of Riverside, the county seat of Riverside County, which played a role in inspiring Moreno Valley to embark on this project. The city’s SmartRiverside initiative launched in 2007, the cornerstone of which is a free public wireless network which covers 78 percent of Riverside’s 86 square miles.

Moreno Valley’s CIO has been in communication with Riverside city officials over the past years, in the hopes to build a network in Moreno Valley that similarly responds to community needs while also avoiding past business models which did not fare well for Riverside, including partnerships with AT&T and other providers.

In 2006, Riverside issued a RFP for a provider to deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network, with the goal of making the Internet accessible to users who couldn’t afford higher cost plans. The contract was awarded to AT&T, which hired MetroFi to build the network. AT&T offered free Internet access over the network at speeds of 512 kilobits per second (Kbps), or about half a megabit, in the hopes that residents would then buy 15 or 20 megabit per second (Mbps) service. 

The idea failed and after AT&T acquired a competitor and created AT&T Wireless Systems (AWS), it informed the city in 2009 that it was going to offload 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.” Moreno Valley is trying to avoid repeating that outcome.

Assistance From California’s Statewide Middle-Mile Network 

At this point, Moreno Valley officials are unsure how the proposed network will be funded, which is part of what Magellan Advisors has been hired to help the city with. Moreno Valley’s American Rescue Plan funds are not expected to help the effort much, as most of the money has already been designated for public safety initiatives and road repairs. According to Hargis, the city is also ineligible for many federal and state grants directed at improving broadband, since Moreno Valley is considered to be served by FCC data.

However, Hargis said, the community could be aided by the statewide public middle-mile network California’s Governor and State Legislature recently agreed to construct, and city officials are hoping to influence the route the middle-mile network will take. 

The heavily traveled State Route 60 (also known as the Moreno Valley Freeway) and Interstate 215 pass through the city’s North and West ends. Moreno Valley officials believe there is a strong chance that the statewide middle-mile network will run down one or both of those highways. 

Whether Moreno Valley officials have the leverage to influence the route the middle-mile network will take is yet to be seen. City officials are hoping that the state will communicate any preliminary plans and allow the city to have a say in suggesting changes or altering routes, in a way that will cut the costs of bringing better connectivity to Moreno Valley. 

Addressing the Digital Divide 

In the meantime, Moreno Valley is looking to attack the digital divide from other angles, including by expanding access to free public Internet through the city’s “Wi-Fi Garden” initiative, securing devices for residents in collaboration with Riverside County, and improving digital literacy, training, and skills through the city’s Community Learning and Internet Connectivity (CLiC) initiative. 

The city currently has 25 locations where residents can access free Wi-Fi and upwards of 150 unlimited-access Wi-Fi hotspots that residents can check out through city libraries. The city has also partnered with Riverside County on a program called Tech for Success, which provides free computers to eligible residents.

Additionally, to address digital inclusion, the city has created a portal on their website where all city Internet access resources are centralized – including digital training resources, maps of the city’s Wi-Fi Gardens, and how residents can access the Tech for Success program.

The city’s efforts have been recently recognized, having been bestowed with the 2021 California Society of Municipal Finance Officers’ Innovation Award for its CLiC initiative. 

In a press release announcing the award, Mayor of Moreno Valley, Dr. Yxstian Gutierrez said: "We believe our entire community benefits as more and more residents are able to take advantage of 21st century technology. We are especially proud to receive this recognition since we created CLiC in the middle of the pandemic."