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.