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.

Craig Settles  |  Contributing Writer

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, broadband strategy consultant and co-founder of Communities United for Broadband, which delivers on-site training to private- and public-sector organizations. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) and his blog, Fighting the Next Good Fight.