Many who follow community broadband seem to be on an eternal quest to find the killer app — that one gee-whiz application that turns the world upside down. The next Facebook or Twitter. Some, however, are finding that using broadband to do one thing exceptionally well can be that killer app.

Riverside, Calif., 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is the first U.S. city in 10 years to be named Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF). Riverside owes its success to what appears to be a singular drive to overcome the digital divide.

The award Riverside won is bestowed upon one city from more than 400 worldwide that the ICF deems to have overcome local challenges by using information and communications technology most effectively to build sustainable local prosperity and social inclusion. Riverside has used its citywide broadband network to drive an innovative digital inclusion program, as well as power a total transformation of how its public high schools teach students. This latter application was voted Coolest Broadband Community App by the nearly 300 attendees to ICF’s annual conference in New York two weeks ago.  

[Read more in Government Technology’s in-depth profile of Riverside here (VIDEO).]

Riverside has accomplished a rare feat by creating a digital inclusion program that’s financially self-sustaining. Many digital inclusion programs to date rely on grants and donations. The ICF also was impressed with the array of government broadband applications that are improving the level and quality of government services.

Thousands Brought Into Digital Economy

Riverside’s IT department formed a nonprofit company, SmartRiverside, to manage the city’s digital inclusion program. The citywide wireless network is integrated into the city’s gigabit fiber network and provides free 1 Mbps service that’s a cornerstone of the program — it has brought more than 5,400 low-income families onto the Internet since early 2010.

SmartRiverside hires youth from Project BRIDGE (Building Resources for the Intervention and Deterrence of Gang Engagement), a gang intervention program. The SmartRiverside staff mentors these kids and trains them how to act, talk and work within business settings, as well as helps them get A+ Certification, a general computer certification for entry-level service technicians.

SmartRiverside refurbishes 200 computers per month. The organization sets up training labs at schools where teachers volunteer to teach an eight-hour class for students, parents and other adults. At end of the training, each family receives a free working PC with Microsoft Office, a Wi-Fi router and free wireless access. SmartRiverside’s staff provides lifetime customer service and technical support.

Among 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 Xerox ACS (Xerox’s outsourcing arm). Others work in non-tech industries.

The secret to the project’s financial sustainability resides in e-waste. SmartRiverside collects and recycles 40 tons of outdated and discarded PCs, cellphones and electronic products from its 5,000-square-foot facility. Sixty to 70 percent of the $500,000 necessary to run the wireless network and digital inclusion program is covered by the e-waste recycling business that SmartRiverside also operates. An annual city-run fundraiser covers the remaining costs.

Steve Reneker, Riverside’s CIO and executive director of SmartRiverside, said the organization ran an aggressive citywide awareness campaign to convince individuals and businesses to bring their e-waste to the program’s facility. In a Gigabit Nation radio interview Reneker said, “People in the city — from the mayor on down — believed in our potential to get unserved constituents online, and knew we had to be creative to be able to fund it. Our e-waste program inspired supporters throughout the city.”

Digital Revolution Transforms Education

Building on its digital inclusion success, Riverside hopes to establish a national standard in digital-era learning by using an application the city’s public school district created and aptly called Digital Revolution. A total of 15,000 computing devices of various types are distributed for the school year to students in three high schools. Digital Revolution integrates curriculum, resource and project management in a system that operates from central servers.

The teachers have to adjust to the curriculum, but the district designed it to not be a radical departure from what teachers did before. The radical departure occurs on the student and parent side. The teachers assign only e-books, moving the students from two-dimensional reading to experiencing multimedia content and Internet resources for supplemental learning.

Students work online at their own pace while meeting specific deadlines and completing tests. They still attend classes, but students control from where they complete segments of the curriculum, when they submit homework and how they use study groups.

Students integrate their activities with Internet resources, including social networks. Parents can now access their children’s records and progress reports, and are able to communicate with teachers. The system generates, distributes and grades quantitative test questions, giving teachers more time to grade essay responses. Low-income students will not be left behind, as they can access the free wireless network if necessary.

The district is conducting an intensive evaluation of Digital Revolution’s benefits for students and teachers. Preliminary feedback from both is encouraging for the city. When final independent evaluations are presented in August, the school district will fine-tune and expand the program. Eventually Digital Revolution will be a full kindergarten-through-12th grade program. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge and Reneker discuss the system in detail at the ICF conference (audio).

This interview includes four other mayors from cities that the ICF included in this year’s Top 7 Intelligent Communities. They discuss their respective city’s use of broadband to drive innovation. These leaders rarely mention a killer app. Instead they focus on using technology to improve how the business of government is done. As some of us say in California: That’s killer, dude.

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, broadband strategy consultant and host of the Gigabit Nation talk show.