What’s up with Riverside’s citywide Wi-Fi network?

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.

Background

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.

User statistics

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.

Comments

  1. So the original spec called for covering 55 square miles.

    It takes conservatively $200K/sq mile, and that’s before you get into marketing, customer support, and recurrents. Did Metrofi/AT+T anticipate that this would be $11 million just for the hardware/install?

    Then there’s the folly of trying to cover such enormous areas in the first place with Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is a local, limited technology. It is low powered, operating in open unlicensed spectrum. It will not go through trees or buildings. It will be subject to variable RF interference from contending networks.

    To build a Wi-Fi network as though it was a cell network is misguided, and it sets up all sorts of unreasonable expectations — like that you can connect anywhere.

    Wi-Fi must be deployed with these limitations in mind. If the City of Riverside proposes to take over the network, it should take the top ten locations in Riverside, places where people naturally gather — schools, main streets, libraries, job centers — and seek a sponsor on the basis of that. Put together a package that emphasizes that this is about wireless community revitalization. Jobs, jobs, jobs. The ‘ask’ must be something concrete and compelling if they are to find a sponsor.

    Whatever gear was laid out is now probably getting close to worthless since it is now at least two years old, and probably older. 802.11N will help the cost/quality immensely.

    Riverside can regroup. The fact that they still would have AT+T’s backbone and antenna locations is really a good place to start.

    A sponsor is needed, but a sponsor may be gotten if Riverside focuses on things that sponsors would want. Maybe its a device company that wants to showcase their smart phones. Maybe with a local community portal you could bring health, educational, and public services info to people (it’s not about access, but where you are, your community). Perhaps Riverside becomes a testing ground for local search, for experimenting with all kinds of local applications, services, hyper local ads, things that a Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! or any consumer goods company would find attractive.

    By no means should the network continue as is — that 55 square miles. It was misconceived and would be an albatross.

    If the City is willing to seek a sponsor, they should ask AT+T for unlimited bandwidth for free, locations for gear, and rebuild the network in a top ten list of locations, and have each listed in the sponsor package, with its benefits.

  2. They should also seek to strike a roaming deal with AT+T / Wayport with their new, powerful ten location network to sweeten the pot.

  3. MAR_03_2002 says:

    So, what happened? Did the vote take place? Nothing in the news on their decision.

  4. Hate to burst any bubbles here but AT&T won’t allow Google or Microsoft to just swoop in and assume lease or ownership of that fiber. Not in a million years as Google’s far superior “state of the art” technology will morph the telephone company’s 20 year old equipment having no new technology or equipment in the pipeline. Nope, Google will become the telephone and cable companies’ worst nightmare to the benefit of the consumer.

  5. Alex Lopez says:

    I have never successfully been able to use this wifi, about 20-30 people I know say the same thing. I work in the tech industry in Riverside and it’s been completely useless.

    Good riddance?

  6. Esme Vos says:

    Riverside hired US Internet, the ISP for the Minneapolis citywide WiFi network, to run Riverside’s network.

    http://www.muniwireless.com/2010/05/28/us-internet-takes-over-riverside-wifi-network/

    So maybe you will see an improvement. Please report back and let us know if it’s working again. I guess AT&T never made Riverside’s network a priority.

  7. Larry A. Singleton says:

    Cable companies $46 plus Billion Robbery. Subscribers have been ripped off for five dollars a month since 2000. The cable companies are diverting money that is intended to improve infrastructure, creating a perpetual cash machine for greedy execs.

    Telecon Articles and websites

    “It’s Time to Break Up AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and the Rest of the Telecoms.” AlterNet / By David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick

    Today’s telecoms provide overpriced and inferior service, and are systematically overcharging the hapless American consumer.
    http://www.alternet.org/news/150752/it's_time_to_break_up_at%26t,%C2%A0verizon,_comcast,_time_warner_and_the_rest_of_the_telecoms/

    “How the Phone Companies Are Screwing America: The $320 Billion Broadband Rip-Off” AlterNet / By David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick

    Americans are stuck with an inferior and overpriced communications system, compared with the rest of the world, and we’re being ripped off in the process.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/148397/how_the_phone_companies_are_screwing_america:_the_$320_billion_broadband_rip-off?page=entire

    “OccupyTelecom, Occupy the FCC: How the Communications Trust is Harming America’s Future.”

    The telecom trust’s use of the FCC to raise your rates is a direct example of how corporate greed impacts each of us.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/153109/occupytelecom,_occupy_the_fcc%3A_how_the_communications_trust_is_harming_america’s_future?page=entire

    “The Telecom Scam: 5 Behemoths That Strangle Innovation and Ensure You Pay Too Much for Bad Service.”

    America’s communications system is in crisis, hijacked by a handful of giant companies coddled by the agencies that are supposed to regulate them.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/153049/the_telecom_scam%3A_5_behemoths_that_strangle_innovation_and_ensure_you_pay_too_much_for_bad_service?akid=7844.8325.JL-L4u&rd=1&t=5

    “How AT&T, Verizon and the Telecom Giants Have Captured the Regulator Supposed to Control Them.”

    Our telecom industry’s overseer doesn’t seem to have any control to stop the greed. That’s because it’s a puppet of the industry giants.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/149437

    “Shills R Us: Organizations That Get AT&T Cash Endorse its Mega-Merger with T-Mobile.”

    A growing number of nonprofits are recipients of AT&T grants; are they violating their IRS nonprofit status by shilling for the company’s interests?
    http://www.alternet.org/story/151360/?page=entire

    “Phone Companies’ $100 Billion Rip-off — Where Is That Hidden $6 a Month Going in Our Phone Bills?”

    The phone companies are soaking all of us for a good chunk of money every month, and they’re allowed to conceal it in the fine print of your monthly bill.
    http://www.alternet.org/story/149145/

    “AT&T wields enormous power in Sacramento”

    No other single corporation has spent more trying to influence legislators in recent years. It dispenses millions in political donations and has an army of lobbyists. Bills it opposes are usually defeated.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-att-20120422,0,1400263,full.story

    “Policy Blog, How The FCC Can Create Thousands Of Jobs — But Won’t”

    If it wanted to, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could create tens of thousands of jobs. But it doesn’t want to.

    If it wanted to, Congress could let the FCC create tens of thousands of jobs. But Congress doesn’t want to. (In fact, Congress is contemplating actions that could thwart job creation.)
    http://www.publicknowledge.org/blog/how-fcc-can-create-thousands-jobs-wont

  8. Riversides free Wi-Fi is a joke. I have time be 20 ft near a signal light where the antennas are. Crap.

  9. Google Fiber is not nationwide yet, but they are allowing for people to submit their email addresses, if and when it becomes available.

    Learn more here: http://fiber.google.com

    Google Fiber is every telecom’s worse nightmare come true.