May 17, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

City Technology GM Envisions a Wired L.A. Bringing Government & Citizens Closer Together

As the general manager of the L.A. City Information Technology Agency, Thera Bradshaw oversees not only the internal communications technology for the city, but also the city's nascent efforts to implement WiFi internet access, beginning with pilots throughout the city. In this MIR interview Ms. Bradshaw shares some of L.A.'s existing efforts to digitally connect citizens to their government as well as to bridge the "digital divide" and extend the economic benefits of connectivity to all of L.A.'s communities.

Thera Bradshaw

Government Technology magazine recently honored you as one of its top 25 "doers, dreamers, and drivers" for 2006, based in part on your campaign to connect L.A.'s residents with its government via the internet. How is digital connectivity affecting the relationship between citizens and their government?

It affects the relationship in a number of ways. There are three primary drivers with digital connection. First and foremost is making government more efficient at a reduced cost, and better connected. Next is economic development, which can be generated by connectivity. And third is digital inclusion so no one gets left behind and all neighborhoods are connected.

What are the actual advantages of a digitally connected city & citizenry?

We have already realized benefits in the pilot projects we have embarked upon. A number of municipal WiFi projects are underway in different parts of our city, but specifically, the WiFi project at the Marvin Braude Center in Van Nuys Civic Center is probably one of the most active. We found benefits that we hadn't really even counted on. For instance, during the Robert Blake trial, the news media found the system very valuable to get quick, accurate, up to date information remotely.

With our world today being technology driven we're mobile, global, and on the go; we need to be connected to our offices, our homes, and our families in different ways. Broadband access in communities allows that kind of connectivity.

We have some other pilot projects that have shown success Downtown, for instance in Pershing Square and Little Tokyo, where visitors and travelers have taken advantage of them. I heard an example the other day of two gentlemen who were at meetings at the Bonaventure Hotel and had to be back Downtown for other meetings several hours later. So rather than going all the way back to their office in Canoga Park, they were connected to broadband, sat in a hotel instead of getting into traffic and coming back Downtown two hours later. Not only is there the benefit of mobility, but also of reduced traffic, better environmental conditions, and all sorts of additional advantages of broadband access.

Staying focused on the efficiency and cost effectiveness within government, do these systems help city services such as police departments, fire departments, and health officials be more efficient?

Absolutely. Public safety is certainly a main driver because the more hours our police and fire personnel can spend on the road, the more they are protecting and policing communities. But they can do that only with information that is accurate, up to date, and mobile.

Other parts of our government are mobile as well. My executive officer won a Harvard innovation award for enabling building inspectors to report from the field as opposed to having to come in and fill out paper reports. Again, this reduces traffic and negative impact on the environment, and it results in more productivity. There are cost advantages if you can get more productivity out of the workforce. So not are you only in the mobile environment, but you are able to work a full eight hours a day in the field as opposed to the unproductive commute time.

Clearly, Mayor Villaraigosa is interested & supportive of economic development. What's the nexus between ubiquitous broadband and economic development in the city of L.A.?

With broadband you can conduct business from any location, anytime, anywhere. That can be from an office location or a mobile location, or in transit, even when you are on the train, bus, or plane. Economic development is incredibly important to Los Angeles. Having vibrant communities in the city where you can live, work, play, creates an economic climate that is beneficial and accelerates economic development.

How is your department working to close the "digital divide" and include more people in this 21st century telecommunications environment we live in?

The city of Los Angeles definitely has neighborhoods of haves and have-nots. Just bringing broadband access into areas that are economically depressed isn't the whole story, because many of those areas can't afford the technology, and also need to be educated on how to use the resource.

We are looking at unwiring public spaces like parks, city libraries, city halls, and other facilities among the 700 different public facilities that the city of Los Angeles operates out of on a daily basis. Unwiring city facilities and property over the next three years will allow the public access in all public places.

The real key will be a totally unwired city, and we need to meet that challenge by partnering with others, like educational institutions and technology centers. And we need to encourage children to teach their parents and grandparents if the broadband access is there and the technology is available. We have 72 libraries in the city, and 50 of them now have wireless access. That's a tremendous accomplishment compared to where we were just at the beginning of this year. By the end of this year all libraries will have wireless access at the library, and they have technology. The difficulty, and the challenge, is making sure that there is enough technology to meet the demand.


Over 200 cities in the country are currently in the process of partnering or investing in municipal WiFi . San Francisco and Philadelphia have entered this year into Municipal WIFI contracts. What is the interest level and status of municipal WiFi in the city of Los Angeles?

It is very high. There is a lot of WiFi across the U.S., but not all of it is in municipalities. 66 cities have installed municipal WiFi, and 34 projects are currently underway; L.A. is certainly in that mix. We have a collaborative mayor who understand the benefits and a city council that I have referred to as having all the stars in line-the right people at the right time-to move this forward.

In Los Angeles, the challenges relate to the complexities of the geographic area. It's 465 square miles with 88 cities in and around us. I don't think there is going to be a one-size-fits-all for Los Angeles. Communities in the United States are looking at many different models. Philadelphia is going down a different road than what they initially envisioned. They started looking at a full rollout of government-provided WiFi.

There are many different combinations from where the government owns and operates, to where a private firm owns and operates. As we've seen in the pilot projects we've undertaken, public-private partnership seems to have the most benefit. But, again, there is always going to be a role for government in the public places because if it is not profitable, a company is not likely to go into certain areas. So in those areas the government will have to do its part to ensure that we leave no one behind. That's really the goal of the mayor and the City Council: every community will be served.

Clearly the past roll out of other technologies have left many communities behind. What public strategies will the city of Los Angeles employ to, at minimum, keep that digital divide from growing?

I think the easiest way to answer that is partnership: leveraging all the assets that are available in the broad sense – the schools, technology centers, public places –and encouraging partnership from maybe unlikely interested parties. For instance, you can go into almost any Starbucks now and connect wirelessly.

I think the real challenge is going to be bringing broadband access in as much as making technology available, especially in economically deprived areas. Technology and the internet can help families find new jobs, build a better resume, and provides extended learning opportunities. There is all sorts of information that will be available, but you've got to know how to use the technology and have the technology available.

Could you elaborate on what the timeline of process might be for the city to entertain these WiFi proposals or partnerships?

We have a number of partnerships now in different areas of the city from the Valley to Pershing Square, to the libraries and extending over to our partnership with the LAUSD at Van Nuys High School. I think that each one of these areas will help show the benefit-we do pilots to determine the benefit, gain lessons learned, and then use that to develop an overall strategy. We know that we can have public facilities unwired in the next three years. The picture for the full city, if I am really looking at it realistically, is probably five years. Our next step will be to do a request for proposals and see what kind of interest there is within the business community towards establishing broadband access in Los Angeles.

Are there reports, studies, or commissions you've given the nod to for the development and support of that RFP, or has its schedule yet to be determined?

Some of the best models within a government environment come from public safety, and probably the best business-like model is with the Department of Water and Power. We're working with both public safety and Water and Power to ensure an RFP that would cover the entire city. I don't know what our time frame is to release an RFP, but it should be in the near future.

I wish I could tell you it would take two weeks, but we're doing a lot of education internally, and we're making sure that we're dotting our i's and crossing our t's, not making assumptions and staying open to what kind of partnerships can be developed so that we encourage business to look at this in a positive fashion as they have done in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

When we come back to you at the end of the year, what do you think we'll be talking about? What should be the benchmarks for judging the mayor's and your efforts?

Looking at the benefits of the pilots that we have embarked upon today, looking at the extension to the schools and what benefit there is in terms of additional technology available to the community, and using that platform as an education platform not only for children but for their parents and families. I think at the end of the year we should see what kind of businesses are interested in partnering with the city to bring broadband full access to the city.


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