In its quest to spearhead last-mile fiber-optic broadband at gigabit speeds, Riverside County seeks participants, not mere proposals, for a project worth as much as $4 billion.
Riverside County officials aren’t saying yet who responded to an RFP that marked the public debut of their RIVCOconnect Broadband Initiative, a public-private partnership aimed at building out what may be the nation’s largest broadband network.
But after a four-month procurement process that was extended to nearly six months, responses are in and should be made public later this week. Already, it’s clear this process could signal a new way of streamlining large, essential IT infrastructure projects.
When construction begins, potentially as soon as the summer of 2018, RIVCOconnect will deliver last-mile, gigabit-speed fiber-optic broadband to a far-flung county that’s nearly the size of New Jersey and home to more than 2.3 million people.
An estimated 21,114 businesses will also benefit from receiving the service, though build-out will take five years.
Steve Reneker, RIVCOconnect Chief Broadband Officer (CBO) and recent former Riverside County CIO, said officials decided to act knowing coastal communities like San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles are typically the first to get these types of services.
“We know that if we would have done nothing, it would be probably five to 10 years before we would see any type of advanced Internet services. We’re excited about what this might be able to bring for economic development, and the digital equity perspective for Riverside County residents,” Reneker said.
The county also intends to require build-out to cover higher-income areas in equal increments with more disadvantaged regions, to avoid cherry-picking.
Nearly 40 potential partners, 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 attended an online proposers conference with county officials on Thursday, April 20.
While “typical” government procurement will most likely continue in Riverside County, the success of the online conference, and the design of this RFP process could signal an alternative path for similar projects.
“I would say certainly, large projects, maybe of a capital nature, might make sense to go down this process,” Reneker said, describing them as “very few and very infrequent.”
Riverside County extended the deadline to respond to this RFP twice following its release on Monday, April 3 with an Aug. 15 due date. At the request of potential applicants who went on to apply, officials prolonged it to Sept. 7, then to Sept. 28.
But Reneker described it as more a “Request for Participation” than a Request for Proposal “because we’re literally looking for participation from the curator and Internet service providers in the communities determined.”
One key difference between RIVCOconnect and other projects: the county isn’t buying anything, and so it will ultimately enter into a contract with a provider or a team of providers after negotiating based on “what these carriers are looking for from government” to plan and build out the infrastructure, he said.
The public-private partnership the project will create has a valuation of between $2 billion and $4 billion.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors will be briefed before the county releases applicants’ names. Significantly, however, Reneker noted that the county doesn’t represent 24 other incorporated cities — which must get approval from their own elected bodies to opt in or out of the project.
While commitment levels may vary, Reneker confirmed “some” commitment exists from all 24 entities and the county is “hopeful” all will formally join.
There won’t be an actual financial commitment from the county or cities, but one request the county has made is for communities to “commit to trying to follow” either expedited or reduced permitting fees, “to ensure the build can be done in an expeditious fashion.”
Another likely pledge will be making assets available in project areas, including existing fiber networks, streetlights, power poles and municipal facilities.
“Making all those facilities available for this project at some given price or lease arrangement that’s attractive, is what we’ve all committed to, providing a single point of contact for the effort and providing concierge-type services for the vendors so that they can quickly and efficiently get things through the government bureaucracy as quickly as possible," said Reneker.
Should the vendor require it, some of the communities could end up with long-term commitments to high-speed service as a condition of their anchor tenancy, he added.
County officials hope to determine which candidates meet the RFP’s mission, provide a “level of reasonableness” and confirm their financial status by mid-October, advancing them to “Level One” status.
By the end of November, officials plan to further evaluate Level One proposals and meet with vendors for about a half-day each, to obtain answers to more detailed questions and move some to Level Two.
A scoring process will then determine which vendor or vendors are passed through Level Two to negotiations conducted by Riverside-based national law firm Best, Best & Krieger LLP.
Reneker said a master contract or contracts should be ready for approval by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors during the first quarter of 2018.