How San Jose is Closing the Digital Divide

November 2, 2018 - (5 min read)

This is the fifth in a series of case studies tracking how cities are handling small cell wireless infrastructure deployment on their streets. To learn more about this technology and how your city can get ready for it, read NLC’s municipal action guide on small cell wireless infrastructure.

Equity drives San Jose’s approach to bringing new technologies to the city, and the deployment of municipal broadband and municipal fiber lines are no exception.

Located in Silicon Valley, San Jose city officials are acutely aware of the technology boom happening on their doorstep and are eager to welcome these advances, provided they can do so in a way that speaks to the needs of all residents. With only three percent of the city connected to high quality fiber lines, the city needed to improve overall access to high speed internet as well as address the digital divide for 95,000 residents without access.

After commissioning a study of the city’s broadband approach as well as conducting surveys with low-income populations, San Jose officials set about working with the private sector on an arrangement that facilitates deployment, speaks to the city’s equity goals and meets provider expectations.

They settled on a tiered pricing structure where providers pay $750-$2500, depending on whether they will cover the entire city or pick and choose limited deployments. Larger deployments essentially receive a bulk-discounted rate. This revenue then feeds into two important city goals: internal capacity building and digital equity.

For the former, the revenue bolsters the public works department, enabling staff to streamline the permitting and governance processes. Providers are therefore amenable to the deal because it facilitates faster small cell deployment. Additionally, the remaining funds, $24M so far, go into a “Digital Inclusion Fund” to close the digital divide for low income and vulnerable populations

Among the challenges the city still faces with small cell deployment is its own geography. At 180 square miles, San Jose is spread out, requiring more small cell infrastructure to reach all residents. And, like many cities in America, the existing infrastructure is aging, and many light poles require structural remediation before they can support the added siting. These improvements add money and time to the deployment process.

Still, the city finds that building a thoughtful strategy and working with multiple carriers helps to remedy some of these challenges. When San Jose officials stepped back to look at the whole picture, they noticed that different providers had an interest in deploying in different market segments and, therefore, different neighborhoods. By building relationships with these carriers, the city has been able to spread coverage across its geography.

Where gaps arise, the digital inclusion fund fills in; some of the projects on deck include free device checkout at libraries and coding camps. The city also pursued partnerships to bring free home wifi access to low income students for all four years of high school, complementing an ongoing project of the school districts to provide free wifi in certain areas.

“Looking at this strategically,” said Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham, “it was really important for us to get that investment but also make sure that we were being thoughtful about equity and closing the digital divide.”

How San Jose Does It:

  • Study the topic in detail before starting: San Jose set out to thoroughly understand their broadband needs and options by commissioning a study from a private firm. While there are upfront costs associated with this route, the city views this step as an important investment in infrastructure planning and one that set them on a path of making effective decisions.
  • Plan for additional costs and time factors: The city also recommends fully evaluating the existing state of infrastructure and factoring in costs such as structural upgrades for poles that are in disrepair or otherwise unable to support small cell deployment. Such poles often need to be replaced entirely, raising costs. Becoming fully aware of the state of internet access in the city, as well as the opportunities and challenges of broadband deployment specific to their geography, enhance the city’s ability to negotiate with providers a solution that truly works for city residents.
  • Have a plan to handle the volume of applications: San Jose sticks to one point person to oversee the broadband program and has consolidated and prioritized permitting applications while working with providers through the process. This approach works for the high volume of applications that they receive by reducing confusion or delay and streamlining the process for providers. San Jose recommends that cities review their governance structures prior to deployment to ensure a processing capacity that meets anticipated volume.



nicole_depuis_ready About the Authors: Nicole DuPuis is the principal associate for urban innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.



Angelina_ready Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.