Fund Closes City’s Digital Divide for Low-Income Households

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The San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund was established about a year ago as a mechanism for closing the digital divide for low-income households, reported Government Technology. The program is expected to generate about $24 million over ten years and serve 50,000 households. Funding will come mainly from lease revenue collected from telecommunications companies, including AT&T, as they prepare for 5G and install small cells on city assets.  

According to Dolan Beckel, director of civic innovation, San Jose has permitted more than 1,100 small cells to date. Beckel added that San Jose’s telecom lease rate for citywide/at-scale access to its assets is $750 a year.

 “For every one [small cell] that goes up, the lease revenue is committed to the Digital Inclusion Fund,” Beckel explained. “And the Digital Inclusion Fund is focused on three things: providing access at home for the disconnected, providing the appropriate device, and then providing them the digital literacy skills they need.”

The city selected the California Emerging Technology Fund as the implementation partner to help it work with the community-based organizations which will receive the grants, to be distributed to qualifying residents, reported Government Technology. Twenty-three applications have already been approved, receiving grants totaling $1 million. The first round of grants is expected to fund internet service and adoption in 4,000 homes. 

According to Beckel, it was essential to partner with local community-based organizations since San Jose’s highest concentration of homes without internet service and other forms of access occurs in low-income Latino households. In San Jose, 40 percent of the population was born outside of the United States.

 “So you have a large segment of the population that has inherent concerns about Big Brother, inherent concerns about federal government immigration status, so the model that we chose was not to have Big Brother implementing these programs, but basically partner and grant to local community-based organizations.”

One concern Beckel has is the Federal Communications Commission’s move to squelch local control of cities, specifically related to how much they can charge telecoms for lease agreements. San Jose, which negotiated its lease rate prior to the FCC rule change, is challenging this move in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco so they can continue adding money to their Digital Inclusion Fund. 

“What we’re hoping is that the Ninth Circuit says, the FCC did over-reach, and the local authorities do have the ability to have some control over things like their lease rates,” said Beckel.

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