Implemented public-private partnerships to identify barriers to break down the digital divide and make internet access more equitable in one of the nation’s largest cross-sector digital inclusion efforts to date.
Set up grant-based contracts for local community-based organizations to help them deliver broadband to 50,000 unconnected households by the year 2030.
Launched an app for residents to both submit service requests and receive service information from the city, which fields 165,000 service requests a year.
Using Data to Bridge the Digital Divide
Universal broadband access is part of the city’s current “Smart City Roadmap.” The fact that people in Silicon Valley’s largest city lack broadband access was unacceptable to city leaders, so in 2016, working from the premise that internet access is a basic human right in the 21st century, former Mayor Liccardo launched the Digital Inclusion Fund, pledging to close the digital divide.
Led by the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation and the City’s Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, this public-private partnership between local government teams and external partners is believed to be the nation’s largest cross-sector digital inclusion effort to date.
The first step was to learn who lacked access. Working with external partners such as Stanford University, the City’s digital inclusion team used a variety of data sources to identify over 95,000 San José households without access to broadband. After creating a heat map of the digital divide down to the neighborhood level, the team canvassed over 600 residents and conducted street surveys and interviews in multiple languages to identify primary barriers to access.
With this essential data in hand, the team identified three critical components for digital inclusion: (1) an affordable broadband connection at home, (2) a working device, and (3) digital literacy skills. The City then made the case to external private-sector funders, including major telecom companies and others in the private sector, to help fund the initiative.
Funding for San José’s broadband strategy is bolstered by the deployment of “small cell” technology — basically, 5G-compatible antennae that can be installed on rooftops, streetlights, and other locations. Beckel’s team negotiated innovative outcomes-driven contracts with telecom companies Verizon, AT&T, and Mobilitie on behalf of Sprint: pricing was structured so that the cost per broadband-enabling small cell site built by the telecom giant was tied to the number of sites built. To support residents in need of the other two components of true digital inclusion — working devices and digital literacy — the team set up grant-based contracts with the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and local community-based organizations.
The City is now on its way to improving broadband for all San José residents while simultaneously delivering broadband to 50,000 unconnected households by the year 2030. Since the implementation of the digital inclusion program began, 23 grants totaling $1,000,000 have been issued to San José community-based organizations with the goal of achieving 4,000 “adoptions” in the next year (i.e., connecting previously unconnected households to broadband internet access, ensuring household members have the appropriate devices, and providing digital literacy training). Average connectivity speeds across the city have improved fivefold to 30Mbps per second, and permits approved for construction of small cell sites have skyrocketed — up from five permits total in 2017 to more than 70 permits each week as of early 2020.
The vital importance of closing the digital divide and building out a city-wide digital infrastructure that connects all its residents — and ensures equity in digital access — was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. San José was one of the first places in the country under a stay-at-home order, which immediately presented challenges for work and education for the thousands of school-aged children in the city.
In addition to its ongoing digital divide work, to respond to the immediate needs at hand, the City quickly partnered with on-demand tech companies like DoorDash to support meal delivery to vulnerable residents. San José also steered critical regional leadership by launching Silicon Valley Strong, a multi-city initiative where residents can give help or get help with COVID-19 related issues. To date, more than 3,000 volunteers have signed up through the online platform, millions of free meals have been distributed throughout the metro area, more than 200 internet-enabled devices have been collected and distributed, and $27 million in donations have been raised.