San Jose Races to Close the ‘Digital Divide’ as Coronavirus Moves Learning Online

Despite describing itself as the Capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose is home to thousands of residents who lack basic internet connection or even access to a computer. Now that the coronavirus outbreak has pushed schooling online, city lawmakers are concerned that the global pandemic is deepening that inequality even further.

At Tuesday’s virtual City Council meeting, San Jose’s elected officials asked what it would take to prioritize the expansion of community wifi.

“I want to hear that we’re not going to make them stay a whole extra year without having this broadband connectivity that they need to bridge that digital divide,” Councilwoman Maya Esparza said about K-12 students distance learning from home.

Census data from the latest American Community Survey estimates that more than 20,000 households in the city of a million have no internet access, and that approximately 17,000 of them earn yearly incomes of less than $75,000. An estimated 12,477 households have no computer.

San Jose has been trying to close the gap for a number of years now.

In February, before the region went into shelter-in-place, the council approved $1 million in grants to 23 different community organizations to bring 4,000 households online. The organizations, which include Sacred Heart Community Service, Alum Rock Union School District and the San Jose Public Library Foundation, have been developing digital literacy courses to ensure a smooth transition for households that previously went without internet access.

But the coronavirus outbreak has created an urgency to expedite those efforts.

“The digital inclusion gap, which was there before, which we talked about being a homework gap, connectivity gap, now became access to school itself and an education gap,” Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said.

Mary Ann Dewan, the Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools, said that the county needs at minimum 15,000 hotspots and 12,000 devices to support distance learning for students in the county’s 31 school districts.

“Schools are reporting that some of the biggest challenges that they are facing with distance learning is getting and keeping students connected through traditional wifi connections or hotspots,” she said.  “Some districts have also reported that they’ve purchased mobile phones and data plans as an immediate stop gap measure and dedicated hot spots have been deployed, but with mixed results.”

Councilwomen Sylvia Arenas, Magdalena Carrasco and Esparza asked city officials to accelerate the expansion of Access East Side. The program, which is being carried out in with the East Side Union High School District, aims to bring internet connectivity to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

In 2017, the city installed community wifi in the area surrounding James Lick High School. Wifi in the Overfelt High area is expected to be completed this summer and plans for the Yerba Buena High are should wrap up by summer 2021

“I see the city of San Jose absolutely responsible for this because it is a core service,” Arenas said. “Infrastructure is a core service for the city of San Jose. I know that none of this can happen if we don’t provide some of this infrastructure.”

Harkness noted that in the interim, they could deploy strategies like school bus wifi, parking lot wifi and other technologies. However, he added, that building out infrastructure for long-term needs takes both time and money.

As San Jose faces budget cutbacks, city officials said they were researching if they could use money from FEMA or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to fund its digital inclusion efforts during and immediately after the pandemic.

To bridge some of the infrastructure gap, the city has been focused on small cell deployment for both 4G and 5G networks. Harkness said they’ve processed permits for 1,700 cells, but due to the shelter-in-place order most construction has been halted. San Jose has asked the Santa Clara County Public Health Department if the cell deployment projects can be deemed essential business.

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase.

6 Comments

  1. Glass half empty reporting. Another way to have reported this is that 98% of SJ households have internet access.

  2. > San Jose Races to Close the ‘Digital Divide’ as Coronavirus Moves Learning Online

    Oh wow!

    “Online learning” and home schooling really scares the pants off of progressives.

    https://nypost.com/2020/04/23/harvard-professor-wants-to-ban-authoritarian-homeschooling/

    “Harvard professor wants to ban homeschooling because it’s ‘authoritarian’”

    imagine a world were progressive educators DIDN’T have a locked down room full of “skulls full of mush” to indoctrinate on a daily basis. The moppets might grow up into thinking adults and not vote for Democrats..

  3. Let me correct myself. I should have said the current brand of liberalism, whose current crop is intolerant of everyone who disagrees with them, who shouts down free speech when the content is something they don’t like. Mario Savio must be rolling over in his grave. The old school liberals championed individualism and tolerance. The current liberals are the most intolerant group on the planet, and the overwhelming majority of them are Democrats. They know what’s best for us, and shout down all opposition. In high schools and colleges they have taught the the current coddled generations to expect the government to provide everything for them and keep them safe from their mistakes and all other harm. They have not taught them that the government provides NOTHING. The taxpayers fund everything, not the government. And these days, the numbers of taxpayers dwindles daily, and not from COVID. Only about 45% of Americans actually pay federal taxes these days, and well over half of those do not pay enough in federal taxes to fund what they receive “from the government”.

  4. Headline should read:
    “Census Data Again Deliberately Misinterpreted To Justify More Waste Of Taxpayer Dollars And To Advance Progressive Agenda”
    Once again these lunatics remind us why we shouldn’t cooperate with the Census.

  5. Speaking of closing “the divide”, we need to close the tax divide.

    Twenty percent of people pay eighty percent of taxes.

    We need to get the eighty percent who only pay twenty percent to up their contributions and pay their fair share.

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