San Jose Teams Up with East Side Schools to Close ‘Digital Divide’

The East Side Union High School District and the city of San Jose are close to identifying enough funding to expand wifi around five neighborhood schools.

At Tuesday’s virtual City Council meeting, East Side Union Superintendent Chris Funk revealed that his district may be able to accelerate the timeline of the program called Access East Side. The initiative, which aims to bring internet connection to some of the city’s poorest households, was launched in 2016 but ramped up once the pandemic forced school kids into distance learning.

Thankfully, the city got a bit of a head start.

In October 2017, SmartWAVE Technologies finished installing access nodes and radios for wifi connection on 200 street lights in neighborhoods surrounding James Lick High. Installations in the Overfelt High area are expected to be completed next month, while work around Yerba Buena High should wrap up by January.

But the coronavirus pandemic has created an urgency for San Jose leaders to speed up their efforts in closing the “digital divide” as schools move to online learning. At a May 5 council meeting, city officials reported that 11,600 San Jose students lack a device for distance learning and 8,574 have no internet.

On Tuesday, Funk said his district’s board plans to pass a resolution next week to sell a new round of technology bonds. He said the district should have the money by July to complete work at Independence, Oak Grove and Andrew Hill high schools. City officials plan to bring back a spending plan in the coming weeks that would also include Silver Creek and Mount Pleasant high schools.

Besides the cost of ongoing maintenance, the city has identified a $600,000 funding gap that they need to close in order to complete work around Independence and Oak Grove high schools. In a May 16 memo, San Jose Public Library Director Jill Bourne—who’s leading the city’s digital inclusion efforts—said San Jose will get up to $2 million in grants to support “the design and construction of the community wifi network.”

Though city officials have worked for the last four years on closing internet connectivity gaps in East San Jose, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said he’s concerned about the lack of strategy for when the school year starts up again in the fall.

“My anticipation is that schools are not going to be allowed to open in August,” he said via Zoom on Tuesday. “Once the school year starts and we have literally thousands of students who do not have access to an education, my concern is that I still want to see a plan that’s going to address when school opens [and] how those kids are going to get an education or access to online learning.”

Bourne responded by saying that the solution is to build on San Jose’s existing digital inclusion efforts—and that might look different in various parts of the city.

“We’re really hoping to move forward with East Side [and] get that going,” she said. “I think some of the other solutions that we presented we will be able to come back and say ‘well this solution will help us in this area of the city.’”

Mayor Sam Liccardo, who’s made closing the digital divide one of his signature policies, added that San Jose needs to “acknowledge what we have today is not enough resources”

“Obviously we’re going to do everything we can to find more resources,” he told his colleagues. “It would be hard for folks to really articulate a clear strategy without knowing exactly where those resources are.”

The San Jose City Council also voted unanimously to amend the city’s contract with the California Emerging Technology Fund, which is tasked with distributing money donated to the digital inclusion effort. The contract change sets off a process that will ultimately divvy up the nearly $63,000 raised for closing connectivity gaps. Some 139 laptops and tablets and 200 cell phones were also donated to the effort.

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. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

7 Comments

  1. According to the May 5th staff report, the operations cost for the ultimate community WiFi build out across San Jose would cost between $77 to $250+ per month per household that is currently not served, not including the $126M upfront cost.*

    There has been no evidence provided that there are any households in the city of San Jose that do not have access to either AT&T or Comcast (the terrestrial providers who traditionally had franchise obligations to build to all households). Simply, before building a network, the city should provide evidence that a) a network is needed and b) that the city can build and operate one for less money than the existing operators.

    Also missing from the staff report is the availability of Comcast WiFi hotspots; hotspots that have been opened up at no cost for anyone’s use, regardless of whether they are a Comcast customer. And there are lot of these hotspots in San Jose. For instance, there are at least 25 Wi-Fi hotspots within a kilometer of Yerba Buena High School.

    The real challenge is ensuring that students have access to the existing networks, that they have devices to access the network and that they know how to use the devices. .

    * The estimated cost per year is $4.6M/ year operations, plus $25.2M per year infrastructure refresh for a total of $29.6M annual costs. The number of unserved ranges from 8,574 and 32,000 households, according to slide 5 of the May 5th staff report. The 8,574 are student households and the 32,000 are non-student households. This assumes serving 100% of the currently unserved with this network. The cost per household would be likely be higher as the utilization rate would be likely lower than 100%.

    • Gotta agree with you on all points Ken. Would also like to add a few other points.

      * Smartwave is based in Georgia. In the “Capitol of Silicon Valley” why wasn’t a local contractor selected? Looks like they recently opened an office here (At least since the last time I checked)
      * The performance of the public Wifi has been terrible. Where is the performance clauses in these contracts?
      * SCCOE already has Fiber to their datacenters between schools. Why doesn’t SCCOE build this out? https://www.sccoe.org/news/NR/Pages/Increased-Internet-Bandwidth-Slated-for-Santa-Clara-County-Schools.aspx
      * There are other ways of getting kids connected through current providers as you pointed out. Spectrum internet is giving free internet. At the price per household quoted, we can give kids a top tier comcast connection with HBO, https://www.spectrum.net/support/internet/covid-19-internet-offer-students/

      • Robert, you make great points and I agree. Performance or network security hasn’t been talked about and, as you point out, those are both concerns that need to be addressed.

        From a time-to-market perspective, we are talking years and years for the build-out of Communitiy Wi-Fi networks. Reduce the barriers to private competition and we will quickly see a plethora of solutions, including from entities we barely know, like Sail Internet and Common Networks. I have talked to numerous small ISPs around the country that have deployed hotspots at their own expense in the last two months to make sure everyone is connected. Silicon Valley is falling short compared to some of these rural burgs.

        To your point about existing fiber assets, when I was involved with Little League, we worked with the school district to put in WiFi at the Little League Snack Shack, which was about 800 feet from the school. At the Little League’s cost, we added a wireless link to connect to the school’s network, installed a WiFi hotspot and added surveillance cameras to a part of the school property that didn’t have cameras. Our use was mostly when school was not in session, so the cost of Internet transit was virtually-free. We spent more time on the deal with the district than we did the install.

        SCCOE could be working with groups like, the Little League I was with, or Sail Internet and Common Networks to allow them to put transmitters on top of their facilities and use their dark fiber. In exchange, perhaps they would have to provide a “Free Educational Internet”. This would be free to all students, but it would be a walled garden with only school materials. It would be like a virtual school..

        The way Sail and Common would make money is by charging people who want access to the entire Internet. Similar deals could be done with the state and city governments for people who aren’t students, but need access to government services.

        Lastly here are more details on my initial comment which came from an article that San Jose Inside graciously published a couple of weeks ago.

        https://staging.sanjoseinside.com/opinion/op-ed-san-joses-digital-inclusion-plan-misses-the-mark/

    • Well, I stand partially corrected, if what Sail Internet reports is accurate, regarding infrastructure being available everywhere in San Jose. In this press release, they explain how they connected a mobile home park in Alviso with the help of Gardner Family Health who put an antenna on their roof to allow people to connect to the Internet who only had DSL as an option (I am surprised that Comcast never got out to Alviso – I knew they weren’t out there 20 years ago, when it was TCI, but can’t understand why they wouldn’t have built out there by now).

      One user was quoted as saying, “I’ve been using another company for 4 years that only offered me 4-30Mbps download and 4-20Mbps upload. And the cost was over $140 a month! Since Sail became available, I’m getting speeds over 200Mbps for $55 a month.”

      Sail’s expansion into Alviso buttresses the argument that the city should be making it easier for these private providers to expand Internet all around the city so all the citizens benefit from more broadband competition.

      • >Sail’s expansion into Alviso buttresses the argument that the city should be making it easier for these private providers to expand Internet all around the city so all the citizens benefit from more broadband competition.

        Follow the money. Comcast has been donating to our local political folks for some time.

        • Yep, 100% agreement again on the argument about the role of private providers.

          What doesn’t make sense about the city’s relationship with Comcast is that they seemingly are ignoring the fact that Comcast have WiFi hotspots available that could be used today. The presentations I have seen emphasize the deployment of 5G smart poles, which, as far as I know, still haven’t been turned up anywhere in San Jose.

      • Ken, I can further explain that Sail Internet leveraged fiber and fixed wireless technology in Alviso. Starting at the fiber point, we build point-to-point wireless links to our “relay” locations. At these relays, we have access points to serve the neighborhood homes and businesses. We install a small antenna on the roof of customers that sign-up. We currently deliver speeds up to 200Mbps, and are aiming to launch Gbps-level service in 2021. We already serve parts of San Jose, Santa Clara, Fremont and Milpitas.

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