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Riverside, Calif., Program Helps Close City’s Digital Divide (VIDEO)

How this Southern California city’s efforts to close the digital divide and attract employers landed it among the world’s technology elite.

The Southern California city of Riverside was the richest city per-capita in the United States. A few years earlier, a handful of orange trees had been planted in the fertile soil of the young town, giving birth to the California citrus industry. Spurred by cutting-edge technologies like refrigerated rail cars and innovative irrigation systems, the industry — and Riverside — thrived.

Over time, however, international competition crowded out Riverside’s orange growers. Pressure from population growth took its toll, making smog and traffic severe problems. An IT outsourcing plan delivered more benefits to the vendor than to the city, according to Riverside officials. And police operations were in such disarray in the early 2000s that the federal government threatened to intervene. By 2004, resident satisfaction with city agencies was at an all-time low.

So, nearly 150 years after Riverside’s rise, city leaders again looked to technology to turn things around.

Watch Video: CIO Steve Reneker and Mayor Ron Loveridge describe how SmartRiverside aims to provide low-income residents withs PCs and Internet access.
In 2005, the city hired its first full-time CIO, Steve Reneker, and it launched SmartRiverside, an ambitious plan to attract and retain technology companies. The plan created free citywide wireless Internet access, technology literacy and digital inclusion activities, and new programs to foster technology innovation and use. A year later, the City Council addressed physical infrastructure needs by approving Riverside Renaissance, a $2 billion effort to improve traffic flow; replace aging water, sewer and electric infrastructure; and expand and improve police, fire, parks, library and other community facilities.

“We’ve done a number of things that have changed Riverside to make us competitive,” said Mayor Ron Loveridge.

It’s this dedication to high-tech and digital inclusion that, for two years, has earned Riverside a place as one of the Intelligent Community Forum’s (ICF) Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year. The ICF, a New York-based think tank focused on the digital economy, says the Top Seven communities represent international models of economic and social transformation in the 21st century.

Shortly after SmartRiverside’s launch, a group of local business owners approached Reneker, who also serves as SmartRiverside’s executive director, with a plan. “They said, ‘One of the things we think we need is free wireless so we can attract and retain more tech companies in our technology park,’” Reneker said.

By 2007, the city had completed a Wi-Fi network called Wireless Riverside, consisting of 1,600 access points across 86 square miles. The original contractor, AT&T, transferred the network to the city in 2009 at no cost, citing a lack of paying customers. Riverside now owns the equipment; Time Warner Cable is its current service provider; and US Internet services and maintains the network. The city pays $396,000 annually to US Internet under its current contract, and the network provides residents with 786 Kbps Internet access.

While the network was being built out, the program’s leaders decided they also needed to help low-income residents boost their computer literacy. Thirty percent of Riverside residents earn less than $45,000 a year, and 70 percent of the student population is signed up for a free or reduced lunch program.

Intelligent Community Forum

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is a think tank that “studies the economic and social development of the 21st-century community,” according to the forum. Each year, the ICF names the top seven intelligent communities from around the world based on data and metrics submitted by each community. Forum members visit each community and, to conclude the year, the No. 1 community is chosen. Riverside, Calif., has been nominated for two consecutive years. If Riverside wins, it will be the third victory for the U.S. since 2000.

So in 2006, with help from a Microsoft grant, Riverside started the Digital Inclusion program, which focuses on teaching low-income residents computer skills and giving them free refurbished computers. Individuals who earn less than $45,000 qualify for the program and can sign up by calling the city’s 311 information line. Those who are interested are enrolled in classes, most of which last about eight hours, Reneker said. Instructors from Riverside Unified School District provide the training, which typically takes place on evenings and weekends. Once a student completes the class, he or she receives a refurbished computer.

The program’s popularity has grown significantly since its inception. Last October, a survey by the nearby California State University, San Bernardino, showed that the program had graduated its 5,000th family. A few months later, the program had an additional 400 participants and currently serves 100 to 150 families per month.

Reneker said Wireless Riverside has been a key to the Digital Inclusion program’s success, allowing low-income families free Internet access on their refurbished computers. The free Wi-Fi also helps local businesses — residents can use the Internet while dining at restaurants or shopping at stores.

Putting refurbished computers in the hands of Digital Inclusion program participants requires a constant flow of used equipment, which is made possible by donations from businesses, schools and the general public. Digital Inclusion staff members rebuild the donated computers.

These staff members are hired through a separate city program called Project BRIDGE (Building Resources for the Intervention and Deterrence of Gang Engagement), Reneker said, which is run by the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services. The program places at-risk youth in various jobs and professions throughout the city.

The Project BRIDGE members who are employed as Digital Inclusion staff work on site at the city’s e-waste collection facility where they wipe hard drives and configure the equipment with a Windows XP Professional operating system and Microsoft Office Suite.

Jesse Guzman, manager of theDigital Inclusion program, is a Project BRIDGE graduate who became a staff member in 2007. “Since I came from the Project BRIDGE program, I know how to speak to all of our employees and encourage them to get back into school and to get a better job,” Guzman said.

He said the goal for the staff coming from Project BRIDGE is to teach them basic computer technician skills and help them get proper certification to advance onto another job as a computer technician. One of the program’s major successes was a participant who used the free Wi-Fi and an available computer to take online college courses, which eventually earned her a bachelor’s degree.

Computers that don’t meet the program’s standards for refurbishment are disassembled and recycled at the e-waste facility, which helps offset SmartRiverside’s operational costs.

Along with free Wi-Fi and digital literacy initiatives, SmartRiverside includes incentives for businesses to add technology to their facilities. The Tenant Improvement program offers Riverside-based companies starter grants of $20,000 to make improvements.

Reneker said the money can be used for rent or lease payments, but the intent is for the companies to use the funding to add some type of “high-tech” feature to the buildings they occupy so that when the next company moves into the facility, it can take advantage of that feature. Since the Tenant Improvement program started in 2005, SmartRiverside has distributed more than $500,000 in improvement grants.

So what does it take for other cities to move ahead with community technology programs like SmartRiverside? Reneker said cities considering such a step must have elected officials on board with the idea and must be committed to carrying out the program. Through collaboration with the private sector and schools, programs like SmartRiverside can be deployed inexpensively.

“I would encourage everybody that’s thinking about [developing a program] to just go ahead and build it,” Reneker said, “and they’ll be surprised at what it will do for your community.”

In the future, Reneker said Riverside hopes to start other programs that expose the community to technology. Until then, the city is waiting to see if it will be named the world’s No. 1 intelligent community.

Sarah Rich is a former staff writer for Government Technology.