August 09, 2012
Craig Settles, Industry Analyst
Connecting Communities: One Community’s Garbage Is Another One’s Broadband Adoption Program
When was the project started?
Riverside, CA started building its citywide wireless network in 2006, and it went live in 2007. It began providing computers to low-income families before the network buildout when residents only had dial-up service as a free option.
How many miles, what technologies, what speeds?
The network covers 55 square miles, uses WiFi technology and offers 1 Mbps speed. For indoor coverage, subscribers need a WiFi router inside their homes.
What do services costs to businesses? Individuals?
The service is free. The indoor routers are given away as part of the digital inclusion program for low-income residents, one per family.
Who owns the network?
Initially, Riverside’s partner AT&T. In 2010 AT&T gave ownership to the City. Cost savings through automating mobile city workers underwrites cost of network.
Who (what organization) was the primary driver of the project?
Riverside’s IT department initiated. The City created a nonprofit company, Smart Riverside, to manage the digital inclusion program.
Summary of economic benefits broadband has brought
The wireless network is integrated into the City’s gigabit network and an overall broadband effort that has:
- brought hundreds of low-income families onto the Internet
- produced an incubator program that nurtures college students who have potentially patentable products, services and business processes
- led to a “commercialization” process that helps current small tech companies grow
Riverside, CA would like to share a little secret with other communities. You can make money running broadband adoption programs. Really. Success depends on a lot of elbow grease and shoe leather. However, Riverside not only brings hundreds of families into the digital world, but they also boost youths’ future job prospects.
The Feds awarded nearly $500 million to organizations to create computing centers and broadband adoption programs. Some believe these projects could easily fold after their grant money runs out because it’s difficult for underserved communities to financially support these projects that serve them.
Riverside, which didn’t receive stimulus money, found several creative ways to generate revenue. And they implement their broadband adoption program in a way that also transforms teenagers into more productive working adults and potential entrepreneurs. The beauty of their program is that it can be modified and implemented by many communities.
The secret lies in e-waste: outdated smartphones, discarded PCs, that beat up cell phone you keep pushing to the back of your desk drawer. But how much can you earn when recyclers only pay 20 cents/pound for this digital detritus?
Smart Riverside struck a deal with a local recycler to pick up the e-waste twice weekly that the organization collects, and bring Smart Riverside all the old PCs the recycler’s accumulates. The genius here is scale. My grandmother used to say all the time, “son, save up those pennies and eventually you’ll have a dollar, and that’s a dollar more than you have now.”
Steve Reneker, CIO for the city of Riverside and Executive Director of Smart Riverside, says the organization ran an aggressive citywide awareness campaign to convince individuals and businesses to bring their e-waste to the program’s facility. “At the beginning, we were just selling a vision,” states Reneker. “But people in the City from the Mayor on down believed in our potential to get underserved constituents online, and knew we had to be creative to be able to fund it. Our e-waste program inspired supporters throughout the city.”
Besides promoting a great cause, residents and businesses get a tax credit for bringing their e-waste to Smart Riverside. Smart Riverside currently collects and recycles 40 tons of waste a year from its 5000 square-foot facility.
Smart Riverside hires youth from Project BRIDGE (Building Resources for the Intervention and Deterrence of Gang Engagement), a gang intervention program. Reneker says, “Our staff mentors these kids and trains them how to act, talk and deal with customers and helps them get A+ Certification.” This is a general computer certification for entry-level service technicians.
“Our workers have to show up on time, meet work performance goals and stay in school. If anyone shows up late for work too many times, break the rules or get involved with gangs again, they’re fired. Some may think this is a little harsh, but we’re training them to work in the real world.”
This tough love appears to be working. Of the 27 students coming through the program so far, two currently staff and manage the recycling program, three are working at Best Buy and two were hired by at Xerox ACS (Xerox’ outsourcing arm). And these youth produce results. They are refurbishing over 200 units a month, with a waiting list that can reach 30-45 days.
Once Smart Riverside out these elements in place, they went to work on the training component. “We offered to put training labs at every school whose teachers were willing to teach an 8-hour class for students, parents and other adults. They use the Microsoft literacy program with its ready-made curriculum that’s on their Web site. We also pointed schools to a special California fund that makes money available to pay teachers who participate in programs such as these.”
At end of the class, each family receives at no cost a working PC with Microsoft Office and a WiFi router (also known as a CPE – customer premise equipment). The wireless access is free. Families that are willing can later buy faster service. Smart Riverside’s four staff members provide lifetime customer service and technical support for the 5000 families that completed the training.
The main costs for the program are:
$12 per computer (Smart Riverside also receives donated computers)
$10 for licensing Microsoft Windows and Office that comes with each PC
$45 for each CPE, which comes from Ubiquity Networks
Salaries for workers
$1 a year to rent a city facility
The e-waste recycling program covers 60 to 70 percent of the total costs of the program. The City runs an annual golf charity that covers the remainder of the program.
Plenty of cities can emulate this program with sufficient planning plus dogged determination to enlist the support of partners such as the recycler and schools in Riverside. The key is seeing treasure where other people just see garbage and castoffs.
Smart Riverside’s executes this entire program with just five people, including Reneker. With effective staffing and creative fundraiser, it is easy to see a program such as this partner with local colleges to provide basic business skills training so those families receiving computers can start home-based businesses.
Craig Settles is a broadband industry strategist, marketing expert, author and speaker. He helps municipalities and organizations use broadband technologies to improve operating efficiencies and boost local economic development. In addition, he is frequently called upon as source of broadband expertise by leading media outlets.