Supervisors seek to bridge “Digital Divide”

The Riverside Board of Supervisors recently authorized the Department of Information Technology to move forward with an initiative to expand broadband connectivity to all corners of Riverside County in the interest of offering high-speed internet access to more residents and businesses.

“The question is, how can we be like other communities across the United States that are offering high-speed gigabyte services?” county chief information officer Steve Reneker asked the board. “Places like Chattanooga and Kansas City are attracting a lot of industry, major software developers and video technology. What would it take to make that possible here?”

Reneker said a plan he dubbed “RIVCOconnect” seeks to make Riverside County a thriving part of the digital economy while also extending the reach of high-speed internet access to the roughly 100,000 residents, including 58 percent of rural and tribal populations who still depend on dial-up or other slow-speed services.

The IT director said RIVCOconnect is a means of “narrowing the digital divide” and highlighting the county’s capacity to serve high-tech industries.

According to Reneker, the plan calls for a 21st century high-speed broadband network founded on 1 gigabyte-per-second connectivity countywide. The county would not take the lead in putting the IT infrastructure in place, but would instead incentivize the build-out via expedited permitting and minimizing the impact of California Environmental Quality Act requirements. Reneker estimated the cost of creating the fiber-optic network would top
out at $2 billion. He mentioned various telecommunications companies as possible investors and insisted that the county would not bear any major expenses.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries worried about prioritizing digital service over other objectives, noting there are parts of his first district that don’t even have reliable water service or paved streets. “We can’t get fire, the sheriff and medics out to some of these homes,” Jeffries said.

He also doubted that the county’s business climate would improve markedly with RIVCOconnect, given the fact “we’re fighting a trend in California that’s hostile to business and job creation.”

“This might help, but I’m not convinced that making it easier to log on is going to change our county’s problems,” Jeffries said. He was ultimately doubtful about streamlining the permitting process, as well, complaining that the Department of Planning still averages “three, five or six years” to approve permits, even for smaller projects.

Supervisors John Benoit and Chuck Washington expressed general support for RIVCOconnect; the latter saying it was essential to “create an environment that’s more welcoming to economic development and attracts high-tech businesses.”

The board unanimously approved a “not-to-exceed” $250,000 expenditure by the Department of Information Technology for outside legal services provided by Riverside-based Best, Best & Krieger, with whom the county routinely contracts for assistance. BB&K will be responsible for drawing up the overall broadband master plan and submitting it as a proposal on which telecommunications firms can bid.

Jeffries requested quarterly or semiannual updates on progress toward implementation when RIVCOconnect finally takes shape.

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