As one of the nation’s largest counties plans a gigabit fiber network that could cost as much as $4 billion, project organizers are publishing data-rich stories they hope will catch the attention of companies that can build it.
Riverside County, California, the 10th-most-populous county in the nation, recently extended its deadline for companies to submit proposals for its RivCoConnect initiative, a plan to bring gigabit internet to all of its 2.4 million residents. Now open to responses until Sept. 28, the county published three new web pages last week to showcase its vision and illustrate the character and demographic makeup of the people whom the new connectivity would serve.
The data and the narrative that surrounds it portray a diverse and affluent collection of 28 cities and communities whose residents are mostly already connected to the internet. But with even more connectivity, Chief Data Officer Tom Mullen told StateScoop, much more potential will be unlocked.
The city’s initial outreach to vendors was not a traditional request for proposal, but a request for participation. The county is looking for partnerships that would support the region’s economy and diminish the digital divide. A 2016 report by the Internet Innovation Alliance found that the broadband sector produced more than $1 trillion for the American economy in 2014 — 5.9 percent of the GDP. The city wants a piece of that economic development.
“One of the big keys that’s a little different about this project,” Mullen said, “is Riverside County is not looking to buy or resell or take a profit from this project. We truly are looking to try to facilitate it. And we’ll see whether or not it’s the right approach or if we need to change our approach.”
Mullen leads the project alongside David Littell, the initiative’s senior manager, and Steve Reneker, who retired from his position as county chief information officer in July to take a position as the county’s chief broadband officer, which he is expected to retain until his retirement in February.
The initial buildout of a fiber infrastructure that can serve everyone within the county’s 7,303 square miles was projected by county government to cost between $2 and $4 billion. But with that price tag comes great potential — that’s the message the county is trying to share with its new web pages.
“The project is around the solicitation of the broadband fiber community to come to Riverside County, rather than 10 years out or beyond,” Mullen said. “We see the value that gigabit broadband services have for our community and it’s really been demonstrated in communities around the country.”
Each page built using a tool from open data firm Socrata called Perspectives, the new stories published by the county demonstrate both the scope of the challenge government is attempting to solve, along with the prospective economic, educational and personal benefits.
A page targeting the business community points out that while Riverside County comprises more than 6 percent of the state’s total population, only 4 percent of the state works there. By combining data with the narrative of its project goals, the county makes a case for investment.
“Nearly twice as many workers commute out of the County to their place of employment than those who come here from other counties to work,” the page reads.
The county shows that most of its residents, employed or not, have a broadband connection already, but argues that “many more will have other options for telecommuting should higher speed options become available” — providing more opportunities for workers while reducing vehicle traffic and the related stressors on people and the environment.
Wider availability of internet connectivity and at greater speeds is hoped to connect businesses with new customers, workers with employers, and recent graduates and existing workers with new professional opportunities, Mullen said.
“In many instances, we found having high-speed broadband helps enable those types of connections, helps to put workers with employers, and helps employers connect with customers,” Mullen said. “So our ability to help share that story, to help communicate why did we even endeavor down this road is why we put the three stories together.”
Alongside business development, the county also shares stories of its population’s demographic makeup and another of the digital divide that occurs along those lines. With a plurality — about 48 percent — of “Hispanic and Latino” residents, and 40 percent of residents reporting speaking a language other than English as the primary language at home, the county recognizes many of its residents remain “shut out from the digital economy.”
With an average family income of about $80,000, the county says “life is good” there, but notes specific challenges around elderly and disabled populations that might face particular trouble in capitalizing on the opportunities provided them. Nationally, about one-third of adults older than 65 say they never use the internet and about half report not having broadband at home, according to the Pew Research Center.
Of all those “shut out” of the digital economy, the government estimates that about 100,000 of those call Riverside County their home.
“They cannot adequately apply for jobs, do homework, and get health and public services online,” the webpage says.
Mullen said the county extended its deadline for responses after several companies requested additional time to draft proposals that could serve the region’s broadband needs. As in San Francisco, Riverside County’s partnership approach is a recognition that broadband is too important to ignore, and too big to do alone.