Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 11

This is Episode 11 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Steve Reneker explains the fiber network in Riverside, California and the non-profit organization SmartRiverside's digital inclusion program. Listen to this episode here.

 

Lisa: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Lisa Gonzalez, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and a writer on MuniNetworks.org Today's show features an interview with Steve Reneker, the chief innovation officer for the city of Riverside, California. Steve is also the executive director of the non-profit organization SmartRiverside, which has won numerous awards for it's digital inclusion program. Christopher Mitchell interviewed Steve in our eleventh podcast, to learn more about the fiber-optic network that Riverside built and how they've made Wi-Fi a key piece of their digital inclusion work. Learn more in this interview.

Chris: Steven, thank you for joining us on Community Broadband Bits.

Steve: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Chris: I'd like to start off by talking about your fiber-optic network that links with public facilities. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Steve: We have our own public owned utility. One of the aspects of our power side is a fiber group. We have our electric side that has some underground, but a lot of overhead assets, they're easily able to leverage and place fiber on it. What they have done over the last twelve years is build a SONET ring around our city that primarily integrated all of the SCADA or power and water resources throughout the city. Over the last seven, eight years ago, they've connected a few city facilities where it made sense. Seven years ago when I came to this city, we decided that we were going to implement a wireless network and a lot of that required fiber infrastructure to specific locations in order to build that out. When we took a look at doing so, we said, "Well, what would the cost be to inter-connect all city facilities, including our parks and community centers." Because we wanted to do video security at those locations as well. We, in essence, got an engineering group to go ahead price out the build out and construction of all that. We financed it over a ten year period. We completed that two years ago.

Chris: Has that been proven to be a wise decision?

Steve: Very wise decision. We are able to eliminate all of our carrier lines, with the exception of just some phone trunks that come into our city hall for our voice over IP system. We also now just have a single internet pipe that serves both our public Wi-Fi, and we split that out, and the cost of our internet service connection has gone down drastically. More importantly, we're now able to leverage that network and run all of our video services over it, all of our voice and data, and we still have plenty of capacity for other use on it as well.

Chris: Can you get a little bit in to the specifics? As a fairly major city, what uses do you have in terms of video and other data needs.

Steve: On the video side, we're running about 600 high definition IP based cameras throughout the city. Those are in locations, such as our parks, around our city facilities, our utilities. We also have some covert systems that are part of our police operations that are part of that network. The nice part about that is it home runs all those cameras and we place them in our Genetec Video Security System. So the departments that have direct rewrites to access those cameras can see them, our police department has access to all of them. We record all those cameras for thirty days, for evidence purposes, and it works out extremely well for us.

Chris: Wow that's a lot of cameras. Have you done any estimates to find out what it would cost to lease enough services to do what you're doing?

Steve: You know, I just don't- No, we have not, and I don't know if the price would even be cost effective at all. Due to the amount of megapixels that some of our utilities have requested, due to the high definition nature of the cameras, they require a very high speed connection, of which our wireless wouldn't even service it. Trying to implement a T-1 line to cameras and compare the cost of that versus your own network, the T-1 in most cases wouldn't even accept the capacity to a single camera that we have at some of our facilities.

Chris: Okay. Then it would be fair to say that you just wouldn't even be able to do a lot of these things without your own network?

Steve: Yeah, not with the level of frame-rate, not with the level of clarity that we have on the video image, which in our particular case, we use for evidentiary purposes.

Chris: All right. Let's move on to the Wi-Fi, which I think is what most people are interested in with Riverside. Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about why you wanted to do this large wireless project, and I'd love to know why you needed to put wires in the ground and on the poles to do wireless?

Steve: In 2004, we had a group of CEO's of high tech companies here in Riverside that are a part of our group called the CEO Forum. They actually came to a non-profit, of which I am the executive director of, and they said, "Why don't we do wireless just in our downtown. Create some hot spots, try to see if there is incremental month over month take rates on it." If so, maybe expand that a little bit. The non-profit actually got funding, put about thirty of these access points in our downtown. What we saw as a take where it was pretty good. We got a new city manager in 2005, he basically challenged me and said, "Hey Steve, do you think we could expand this to other parts of the city?" I said, "Well, why don't we take it city wide?" That was at a time where Philadelphia was one of the first to attempt to do it. Google was looking at doing a project with San Francisco. We actually gathered both those requests for proposals and said, "Well maybe now is a good opportunity to find out if we can get somebody that would build it out at no cost to us." Then in turn, we would be an anchored tenant and we would use higher speeds on this wireless network to serve our fire/police needs. Also, for some of our wireless needs from an operational perspective; ball-field lights, traffic signals, and our mobile workforce out there. We actually went out to bid. We got AT&T that won that bid and they actually did the deployment at no cost to the city; it covers about 78% of our city. The city now owns and manages it, AT&T exited that business in about 2009. The city continues to operate it and maintain it through a contract we have with US Internet out of Minneapolis. That network, it's a tri-band network, which what that means is there's three basic radios that are in these units. The first radio is a point to point connection that basically extends an internet signal from a fiber location out to these remote devices. What we did is we had to run fiber to six strategic locations of the city and build six sixty foot towers. In our particular case, we built flag poles, sixty foot flag poles, placed those at our fire and police facilities. Those became our, what they call "broadband aggregation points", which created the mesh network. So we run from these towers to about ninety gate-ways that are throughout the city, that are placed on top of our street lamps. Our street lamps here all have photovoltaic that we can unplug, so they're powered full time. They extend that signal out to a series of access points, of which we have about sixteen-hundred, that blanket the city. The tri-band nature; one is for the back haul, one is for public Wi-Fi, and the third is a public safety 4.9 frequency that allows it to be a secured encrypted frequency that's used by our fire and police mobile work forces, streams video back from our police cars, back to city hall. It also gives them full access to the internet and other city applications just as they had a desktop in their own work environment, but in this case it's a mobile data computer inside their vehicle.

Chris: I think it would be a good time, I should have asked earlier, if you could just briefly discuss the size of Riverside and the nature of the citizens?

Steve: Sure. We're about eighty-six square miles. We have about three-hundred, five thousand in population. We have a large ... rural area that surrounds Riverside that was formerly our citrus crop, rural areas. We have a lot of, still orange groves in the area, and some of those have been converted to five acre parcels, which makes it a little bit of a challenge for wireless. In the other areas we've been able to cover it.

Chris: You have this area, you're sort of the city center, right? I mean you're the ... Other people in the region come to you?

Steve: Yes, they do.

Chris: ... then has been a big effort on economic development, if I remember correctly.

Steve: Yeah. It's been huge for us. One of the things that we realized that when we were deploying this, which was primarily as an anchored tenant for city use. We knew that there would be some take rates from the public, obviously, because we offer it for free up to 1 Meg. What we realized is we had a lot of low income families in Riverside, about 30% of our families have incomes of about forty-five thousand and under. We actually started at the same time, actually just before it went live, and created a digital inclusion program. It's become a world renowned program where we use, reform gang members, mentor them, teach them skills and PC refurbishment, and pay their salaries by collecting electronic waste. What we've done is created a program where our schools train the families of Riverside and upon the graduation, they're getting a free refurbished computer, Microsoft office software, and a wireless access device that extends that outdoor signal indoors to their homes. We've benefited a little over six thousand of our families here in Riverside, and we grow it at about a hundred and fifty a month.

Chris: You've won a number of awards for that program, is that right?

Steve: Yes, we have. We just recently won a Helen Putnam Award from the California League of Cities, and we are also recognized by the Intelligent Community Forum as a Center of Excellence in the world for digital inclusion.

Chris: Right. I remember that you actually were the first US city honored with that in a long time.

Steve: Yes, that's correct.

Chris: Congratulations. What can people- If I'm from a different community and I'm trying to set up a similar program inspired by you, where can I learn more about how you've gone about doing this?

Steve: We have all that information up on our website at www.smartriverside.org. Up there has all the programs that we offer, it covers our wireless program and also talks in detail about our digital inclusion program. We certainly, anybody that would like to come out and visit us, we'd love to try and help other communities out there be able to replicate what we've done here, back in their own cities and counties.

Chris: What role does does it play ... What role does having your own network play in terms of helping the digital inclusion efforts?

Steve: If you don't have the network, it's almost impossible to do digital inclusion. What we've found is what really made it successful. One was making the technology low cost or free; in our particular case, it's free. A lot of families can't even afford broadband in their home. If you're giving them a free PC but they're not able to afford the broadband on the back end, it's not really helping them out. Having the wireless network for us has been huge. It's really offered the opportunities to those families that otherwise would remain disconnected.

Chris: Have you seen any impact on jobs from your investments in the telecommunications? Has it led to any new firms coming, or business expansion?

Steve: Yeah, it has. As a part of that recognition from SmartRiverside, we have gone through a major transformation from an innovation perspective in incubating new start up companies, from really, teachers and students from our University of California Riverside that does research. A lot of those are electing to stay here in Riverside, start their companies here. We've recently attracted some larger companies to the region, like SolarMax, an example, it's just bringing a thousand new jobs to Riverside. We're excited about those companies that, especially the technology ones, that recognize the benefits of infrastructure that we have here. Also recognize that people want to live and have their kids go to school in those kind of geographies where broadband access is available to everyone.

Chris: Sometimes a touchy subject, I don't want to put you out in front of your elected officials, but, I'm always curious if there's been any conversation on terms of considering offering services beyond the wireless. Maybe doing some wired fiber-optic expansion to a business park or residents, anything along those lines?

Steve: It's a little touchy because there are regulations that stipulate exactly what our utility can or can't do from a competition standpoint. They have elected, based on our elected and their board, to not compete in the business and residential side for internet access. We certainly encourage competition. One of the things that we did with our wireless network, we only had a couple of carriers in town, charter was really one of the key ones for internet access. We actually expedited permits for AT&T to roll out their U-Verse product in our city. We think that by allowing competition between carriers; cable, other service providers, such as Verizon, which has a sliver of their FiOS product in Riverside, and U-Verse, helps get the price down to an affordable standpoint and also gives people choice, and people like choice.

Chris: That's what we're always working for, is ... we would like to say the real choice. Is there anything else we should know about Riverside that we haven't already touched on?

Steve: I think that one of the unique things about Riverside is not just what we've been able to do with broadband expansion and with our digital inclusion program. I think the innovation aspects are really unique. I think one of the big benefits we have is having a research university. We also have three other colleges here. I think one of the things that is really important, that once you have that infrastructure there, you have to recognize what your majority of your population is. In our particular case, it's really a younger community; it's a college crowd. What we really have to do is we have to make sure that our websites are oriented. These individuals now are getting all their information online and we have to be able to deliver mobile apps for them so they can interface and integrate their issues into our city government. That's what we've been doing over the last three and four years, is really focus on our web projects and our mobile development, so that they can interact with city government better than they had been able to in the past.

Chris: Well, thank you so much for taking some time to tell us about your city and excellent projects you're working on.

Steve: Well, thanks so much.

Lisa: That was Steve Reneker, the chief innovation officer for the city of Riverside, California. To learn more, visit our show’s page on MuniNetworks.org, where we have links to some of the materials discussed in the show. If you have any questions or comments, please tell us directly. Email podcast@muninetworks.org. Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets. This show was released on September 4th, 2012. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music you licensed using creative commons, the song is called "Storms Over."

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