Despite its “Capital of Silicon Valley” slogan, San Jose is home to thousands of residents who don’t have basic internet access at home.
The city moved to change that on Tuesday, creating the San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund — the largest of its kind in the country. The aim? To bring broadband access to some 50,000 households over the next decade and teach residents who may be new to the web the digital skills they need to navigate it.
“There’s so little awareness in San Jose of the digital divide,” said Dolan Beckel in the city’s Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy.
Now, the city estimates that around 95,000 residents have no internet access at home.
For seniors, the initiative might mean learning how to navigate a healthcare website that allows them to talk to their doctor more easily. For students, it might mean the ability to file a homework assignment or apply for a job online without having to trek to a library, Starbucks parking lot or someplace else with free wireless.
Longterm, the city wants to close what Mayor Sam Liccardo on Tuesday called a “palpable” digital divide — a divide that right now means the opportunities Silicon Valley has to offer are out of reach for many residents. As Google and other tech giants look to San Jose to grow their businesses, the city wants to produce students and young people capable of filling new jobs.
“Many lack resources that I believe everyone should have access to,” said Meilyn Wong, a junior at Lincoln High School.
The city will partner with the nonprofit California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) to manage the $24 million initiative. It will be funded by the fees that telecommunications companies pay to place small cells in the city that allow them to deploy 5G — and in the future, even better cellular technology. Some other cities collect such fees from companies like Verizon and AT&T, but San Jose is the first major city to direct the money raised from those fees directly toward increasing internet access.
“Digital inclusion is a 21st century civil right,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, the president and CEO of CETF.
San Jose is “the pathfinder in our state,” Wright McPeak said, praising the city for its “vision and leadership” on the issue.
And, Wright McPeak said, while the percentage of San Jose residents who are either “un-connected or under-connected” to the internet at home is in line with the overall figure for California as a whole, around 30 percent, the fact that at 95,000 the sheer number is so high demands attention.
“The Digital Inclusion Fund is a premier example of what can happen with sincere public-private partnerships,” Shireen Santosham, the city’s chief innovation officer, said in a statement. “We are truly appreciative of our telecom partners for working with the city to take this pioneering step and are thrilled to be working with the California Emerging Technology Fund.”
To increase connectivity, the city is planning a number of grants and programs, including expanding programs to give refurbished and donated computers to low-income families and educational programs such as the city’s Coding 5K Challenge, an effort to teach more young people to code. CETF is aiming to grant the first $1 million by the fall of 2019 and the aim is to reach people where they already are — at libraries and senior centers.
Liccardo hopes the model “will be copied throughout the country,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to teach a man how to fish,” Councilman Johnny Khamis said, “instead of providing him with a fish.”