Though San Jose, California, sits directly in the heart of Silicon Valley, many of the city’s residents don’t have access to the internet. In one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., more than 100,000 people — including 50% of residents with incomes under $35,000 — are unable to get online.
Finding a solution to that stark disparity was what San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his chief innovation officer, Shireen Santosam, had in mind when they hired Dolan Beckel, an executive fellow with the nonprofit FUSE, in 2016. Now, as the director of the Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, Beckel is working to create a sustainable model that expands connectivity and digital services across San Jose.
As internet access increasingly becomes a universal need, Beckel hopes to see cities shift to models like that in Finland — reportedly the first country in the world to declare broadband access a legal right for every citizen. “I want to live in a world where the internet is considered a utility just like water and electricity,” Beckel said. “In 2019, it’s just as important for our well-being.”
Over the last three years, Beckel and his team have worked with the mayor’s office to understand the systemic changes necessary for tackling such a complex issue. Here are four lessons they’ve learned.
1. THINK LIKE AN ENTREPRENEUR
Beckel and the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation knew that in order to create sustainable programs for addressing the digital divide the city needed money. So Beckel did what any smart Silicon Valley entrepreneur would — he identified a need and crafted a deal to fill it. To implement 5G, which provides faster and better digital connectivity, telecommunications companies have been installing compact antennas called “small cells.” But to work, small cells must be situated at high levels with access to electrical power, and the more cells there are, the more consistent the service they provide. The solution? City light poles, the ideal spot to hold small cells. San Jose’s existing workhorse utilities instantly became the most valuable asset the city had to offer telecom companies.
Beckel’s team took the idea to local telecoms and negotiated an agreement to generate income from the city’s existing infrastructure, offering to lease the light poles at a market-based rate in return for guaranteed fast and consistent service. To speed up the process, San Jose used the fees to put in place a team dedicated to installation.
The remainder of the expected income, estimated at $24 million over the next 10 years, will go into what San Jose calls its Digital Inclusion Fund. Created by Mayor Liccardo, the fund will be used to bring connectivity, devices and digital literacy to 50,000 underserved households, effectively closing the digital divide for these residents. Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness believes the efficiency of the process will potentially save the telecoms millions. “Rather than these companies having to go through thousands of negotiations on each small cell they installed, our offer allowed them to negotiate all at once,” he said.
These deals have also led to what the city says is the largest small-cell implementation in the country. In 2017, before the project had taken off, San Jose had only managed to create permits for five small cells across the city. These days, Harkness said the city permits around 30 small cells a week.
2. COMMIT EVERY PENNY TO THE STATED GOALS
While most cities place revenue from private deals into a general fund, every penny of the estimated $24 million from the telecom agreements will go into the Digital Inclusion Fund to support citywide programming that addresses the digital divide. San Jose claims it’s the first city in the country to specifically restrict revenue for these purposes.
“In other cities, that revenue goes into a general citywide fund and then kind of disappears,” Beckel said. “Residents hope that city leaders do good things with it, but there’s no data-driven plan with accountability of ensuring those funds go toward a specific initiative. The Digital Inclusion Fund radically transformed that.”
3. LISTEN TO — AND WORK WITH — THE COMMUNITY
After approving the fund, the city began to consider how it might spend the monies. But when Beckel’s team surveyed residents about their opinions on citywide digital-inclusion initiatives, many expressed concerns about government involvement.
With a large immigrant population — almost 40% of San Jose’s residents were born in other countries — people reported feeling afraid that the government would look into their immigration status. Others expressed what Beckel referred to as a “Big Brother” fear that anything related to technology and the government would lead to increased surveillance and an overall loss in privacy.
Listening to their concerns, the city decided to take a different approach to offering new services. Rather than providing those services itself, San Jose is partnering with nonprofits and other organizations that already have a track record of community trust, giving them funds but letting them determine community needs and handle operations. This February, for example, the San Jose City Council approved a partnership with California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide nonprofit with a singular mission of closing the digital divide. Some of the initiatives that CETF is developing include expanding library programs that allow people to borrow digital devices such as iPads; increasing the number of free community courses on how to use various technologies; offering more Wi-Fi hotspots near public schools that lack connectivity; and adding after-school coding classes. Programs are slated to begin this fall.
“I think the city was good at acknowledging what we didn’t know and admitting that it wasn’t our core competency to run a social justice program,” Beckel said. “And we realized that from a trust perspective, it’s sometimes better for the city to fund the programs but not be the face of them.”
4. GET READY FOR A LONG HAUL
Though Beckel’s team has made crucial steps toward improving digital inclusion, Beckel worries that future federal and state legislation will constrain the city’s initiatives. Just this May, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that threatens city authority over 5G infrastructure deployment. Mayor Liccardo has partnered with other civic leaders to endorse federal legislation that would overturn it.
“I think there is an overreach of the FCC, which is focusing on the needs of the private sector instead of the needs of the public,” Beckel said. As legislation keeps changing, it’s unclear whether the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund and the steady stream of funding it created will survive.
But when Beckel began this work, he knew that it would require a long-term commitment. “Digital inclusion cannot be achieved with just one program that we implement in a year and then be done,” he said. “We knew that this was going to require more systemic change.”
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.