The California county of Riverside, which is nearly the size of New Jersey and home to more people than 15 other states, sees a countywide gigabit fiber-optic network as the best way to support residents at varying economic levels and ensure its own future — and it’s acting on that ambition.
The county issued an RFP on Monday, April 3 seeking proposals as part of its RIVCOconnect Broadband Initiative, a public-private partnership valued at $2 billion to $4 billion and aimed at developing what it believes will be the nation’s largest broadband network.
Proposals aren’t due until Aug. 15, but on Thursday, April 20 before the county enters a period of closed communication as part of the RFP process, nearly 40 potential partners attended an online proposers conference with Riverside officials.
Chief Data Officer Tom Mullen wasted no time in letting those present — including representatives of AT&T, Spectrum, Frontier Communications and General Dynamics; the cities of Riverside, Indio and Moreno Valley; and financial institutions including J.P. Morgan — know exactly how much potential the far-flung inland agency sees in its many cities and unincorporated areas.
It encompasses areas like Riverside and Palm Springs with million-dollar-plus homes, but also regions around the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake, where — as the RFP pointed out — 80 percent of children in the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) live in poverty.
Now home to more than 2.3 million residents, Mullen said, it adds population at the rate of 2 percent annually and has 100,000 new houses approved that remain to be built.
With its duty to provide modern services in mind, Riverside County seeks providers to build a network capable of speeds of 1 gigabit or higher to every home and business in its 7,200 square miles.
“This places a premium on deployment of smart technologies and infrastructure that will permit the county to pursue policies for sustainable growth,” officials said in the RFP, pointing out the span of its digital divide, which leaves nearly 100,000 residents without broadband.
Mullen told Government Technology that the network could take five years to build out once a provider or team is selected, but with the “reality of construction and customer service, we would love to see it start within the first 12 months depending on who is the selected vendor, who is the selected partner.”
In an effort to bridge the “homework gap” for students without Internet, CVUSD has deployed buses with Wi-Fi routers to serve as mobile hot spots — but the CDO said the county expects providers to originate comprehensive plans for coverage, teaming if necessary to cover its entire area with fiber-optic connections or wireless connections to the curb.
“We know that gigabit speed is the future. We know that fiber provides that durable utility going forward that other technologies do not," Mullen told those assembled at the conference. "That’s why we’re pursuing a fiber-to-the-premise program here. We think that this is the future, not just because we’re here but because the coasts are full.”
The county’s 28 cities will join it in streamlining the permitting process, he said, and hope to incentivize construction of private networks by eliminating overlapping documents and unnecessary steps.
In the RFP, officials compared existing Riverside broadband costs unfavorably with rates for broadband in Chattanooga, Tenn., pointing out that many county residents pay $60 per month for 60 percent of the download speed and just 5 percent of the upload speed Chattanooga offers at $70 per month.
Mullen said at the conference that the county envisions charging $70 for monthly gigabit fiber service to homes and $500 per month to businesses, with added service qualities.
Tiered rates with varying speed and cost, he said, could be a possibility as well. But in its RFP, the county said it expects retail price commitments to be maintained for “at least two years after service begins."
“We’re looking to create partnerships here. We’re not looking to create winners necessarily. We encourage joint submissions. We encourage folks to work across county lines, so to speak,” Mullen said.
The county, he said, is willing to work with providers to make its land and buildings available to providers. In a PowerPoint, officials said plenty of space is available for Fiber Huts “where construction is not likely to raise land use or California Environmental Quality Act issues.”
As for pole attachments that are county-owned versus utility- or city-owned, Mullen said that has not yet been delineated. "[We've] only identified that they are poles and the general location of that pole," he added, "rather than a specific x-y coordinate.”
He also noted that "conduit already in the ground that is owned by the jurisdictions is still being discovered,” and the county hopes to have most of the relevant GIS data layers up and posted within 30 days.
Mike Jewell, director of network service operations at Louisiana-based telecommunications company CenturyLink, asked officials to “talk a little bit about the low-income objectives of this program.” He noted that that providing “one gigabit symmetrical” where data upload speed is the same as download speed, could represent a challenge, and asked what other options the county would be open to.
“What we see is probably a tiered service that falls down below the one gig, that $70 target. Something that is small as maybe half that or maybe less,” Mullen said, noting low-income residents would have to meet certain qualifying standards.
Grants are available through the California Emerging Technology Fund that could subsidize the network in low-income areas.
“We encourage partnering to access those grant funds to … really target underserved and non-served communities that are difficult to reach,” Mullen said.
“We strongly see the social as well as the economic value to providing gigabits for all,” he told Government Technology after the conference.
As part of Riverside County’s contribution, Mullen said the agency will offer up “anchor tenancy” to the provider or team selected as its own Internet service contracts in the county’s roughly 500 buildings, valued in the $5 million range annually. The county and its 28 member cities aren’t looking to own the network, just facilitate the public-private partnership.
Industry consolidation has touched nearly every major Internet service provider, Mullen said, but for those that remain, “We see that this project can facilitate any one of those to building something that is truly next-generation level of service to Riverside County."
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.