The goal of equality of opportunity, particularly around education, is a given. Assuming facility age and upkeep as a proxy for dollars invested per student, then Silicon Valley would have a failing grade in terms of providing equal opportunity.
Admittedly, this superficial view is of someone from outside the educational system, but the disparity is obvious as one drives from the relatively affluent westside to the poorer East Side of this former Valley of the Hearts Delight.
And now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the concern has moved from the physical to the virtual structures of school. Online learning has been thrust into the forefront in a matter of weeks and students without broadband will be left behind. And despite what many are saying, broadband infrastructure is not the issue.
Specifically, the expansion of community wifi, as proposed in the May 5 San Jose City Council meeting is a solution to a non-existent problem. It is not to say that the digital divide is not real in San Jose, it is just that access to broadband is not the divide.
According to the latest maps from the State of California, virtually 100 percent of the households in San Jose can connect to broadband. And this is consistent with the 2017 Broadband and Digital Inclusion Strategy, which shows broadband availability to virtually 100 percent of the city.
In fact, the November 2017 City of San Jose Digital Inclusion Strategy does not cite broadband infrastructure as the source of San Jose’s digital divide. This report, which was based on a survey of 700 low-income individuals with school age children and expert interviews with over 100 individuals across 30 public, private and non-profit organizations, provides reasons why a little more than 10 percent of San Jose homes do not have broadband and are summarized below.
- “Cost of service and the cost of devices are, by far, the top two barriers to broadband adoption.”
- “Many low-income families, especially in the Hispanic community do not understand the benefits of broadband access or that it is essential to complete homework for students today.”
- “Contracting and the sign-up process itself, as well as fears around safety and cyber-bullying also discourage adoption.”
- “Mobility is a key barrier for elderly populations accessing the internet as well as the lack of products, services, and digital literacy training tailored to their needs.”
So, why has San Jose launched a hotspot program and why is it considering expanding it when the issue is not broadband infrastructure but the issues outlined above?
San Jose’s community wifi expansion would cost between $77 to $250 or more a month per household served based on figures presented at the May 5 City Council meeting. These costs do not include upfront project costs of approximately $126 million and the assumptions for staff time, marketing and other costs are not provided. It also does not factor the estimate opportunity cost of a two-and-a-half year buildout.
This plan also ignores that Comcast/Xfinity has opened its wifi hotspots to all, regardless of whether they are customers. For instance, today there are at least 25 Xfinity hotspots within a 3,600-foot radius of Yerba Buena High School, which is one of the targets of community wifi expansion. That is, Comcast/Xfinity already has the fiber backbone network and could easily expand by adding additional wifi nodes on existing strands.
Of course, the best internet is one that is delivered to the household. Both Comcast and AT&T offer lifeline equivalent broadband packages for $9.95 per month, plus tax. The Xfinity Internet Essentials package provides 25 Mbps without contract, credit check, installation free and in-home Wi-Fi, solving many of the barriers identified in the November 2017 Digital Inclusion Strategy Report.
Why isn’t San Jose more aggressively working with Comcast/Xfinity and AT&T to use their existing broadband infrastructures?
Vice Mayor Chappie Jones reported at a recent council meeting that his office has been working with schools and teachers to identify families that need internet access and his office has helped connect these families with Comcast and its Internet Essentials program. This is a great example for the rest of the city of how to efficiently close one part of the digital divide without spending the enormous sums required to overbuild an existing infrastructure.
Clearly, there are still other challenges to broadband adoption, such as device availability and digital literacy. By not spending money on infrastructure, more money will be available to solve these challenges and many more that the city faces in these newly uncertain economic times.
Ken Pyle represents San Jose’s District 1 as a commissioner for the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].