I spoke to Steve Reneker, CIO of Riverside, California, about the status of the citywide Wi-Fi network that AT&T and MetroFi deployed in May 2007. AT&T wants to give the network back to the city, but the city council must decide on 16 March 2010 whether to agree. It is controversial: the city must pay for the cost of maintaining the network which provides free access in Riverside. The Inland Empire, as the region is called, has been hard hit by the economic crisis. Riverside’s official unemployment rate is 14.3 percent. The unofficial rate is much higher. The city is under severe budget constraints, and so are its residents, resulting in a tug of war where many residents want to continue enjoying their free Wi-Fi service but others want the city to spend the money on other matters.
In 2006, Riverside issued a Request for Proposals seeking a provider to deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network. Three companies submitted bids. In October 2006, Riverside awarded the contract to AT&T, which hired MetroFi (now defunct) to deploy the network. MetroFi completed a 25 square-mile area, but it went bankrupt before finishing the project (which required coverage over a 55 square-mile area). Nokia Siemens took over and finished 77 percent of the project.
AT&T’s decision not to continue supporting the network
AT&T bought Wayport in 2008 and turned it into a division called AT&T Wi-Fi Services (AWS). AWS told Riverside in 2009 that it would not build out the rest of the network or maintain it. AWS wants to transfer the network at no cost to Riverside. You would think AT&T would want to use the network to offload data traffic from its 3G networks. This is a mystery.
The network has 20,000 users per day. It is also part of a local digital inclusion program serving 3600 families.
What are Riverside’s options?
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.
In Riverside, according to Steve Reneker, people wait for hours to use public computers in libraries. Many have lost their jobs and need to apply for employment; others go to the public libraries’ computers to apply for unemployment benefits. Getting the simplest tasks done, such as applying for social benefits, requires the applicant to go online.
Why not sell or lease the network to another provider?
The contract between Riverside and AT&T forbids the city from reselling or leasing the network to another operator for a period of five years. As you might imagine, AT&T does not want a private company operating a free Wi-Fi network that would compete with its DSL service. However, Riverside is permitted to get a sponsor such as Google or Microsoft to support the costs of providing free Wi-Fi.
Riverside’s application for broadband stimulus funding
The NTIA rejected Riverside’s application for Round 1 broadband stimulus funds and gave no reasons for the rejection. I suspect it’s because under Round 1 rules, Riverside was not sufficiently rural, i.e. unserved or underserved. Round 2 rules give Riverside a better chance.
Riverside is applying for a grant in Round 2. It is focusing on connecting anchor institutions such as the city’s own public utility and its public safety agencies. It has banded together with four college campuses (but not UC Riverside), the utility, the police and fire departments (which will use the 4.9 GHz frequency band for wireless communications). Here are the elements of Riverside’s application:
- Middle mile fiber network connecting community anchor institutions
- 4.9 GHz public safety network
- Digital Inclusion program that involves the Salvation Army and community colleges to provide computer training to seniors
Riverside and Google Fiber?
Riverside is well positioned for Google’s fiber experiment. Because the city owns the public utility, it has already laid down empty conduits (beneath the streets) to houses and buildings so that a fiber operator like Google can just “shoot” the fiber optic lines down the conduits.