San Jose expands connectivity and equity with telecommunications partners

Kip Harkness, the assistant city manager of San Jose, California, owns the city’s IT and innovation portfolios. He came to town from a private technology background, but now one of his most significant innovations tackles the most fundamental topic: how to connect low-income populations with the Internet. The poor connectivity that plagues many low-income people in the middle of America’s technological heartland has an inherent irony; According to Harkness, “the speeds you would get off a plane here on your phone, despite the fact that we are the capital of Silicon Valley, could make you think you ended up in the wrong country.”

In 2016, Harkness brought in FUSE Fellow Dolan Beckel to explore broadband and equal access in San Jose. “At the time, nobody in town had any idea what broadband and digital inclusion meant, and we spent the next year or so developing a strategy,” he said. Despite initial challenges between the city and the telecommunications companies regarding the placement of small cells, the city proposed a collaborative relationship that would work for both. As Harkness put it, AT&T and Verizon “agreed with us that they would install 4,000 small 5G cells between the two. And so in the last 18 months before the pandemic we had actually scaled up and had it all in full swing, so that by the time we went to the emergency shelter we had already set up a fully digital system. “

He described another “very coincidental coincidence” during this time: the switch to digital approval. Most telecom permits were already paperless before the pandemic, which meant the switch to remote working didn’t disrupt the process. The approval resulted in a partnership that is the first of its kind on this scale, and ended with perfect timing when the city moved into remote working and learning.


For Harkness, equity has always been a part of his IT and infrastructure plans. “When the pandemic broke out, there was no slip of paper to lose, we were able to let in at 70 [small cells] a week, ”he explained.

“At that point we sat down in partnership mode and said, ‘We want to keep accelerating connectivity, but as you build the next round we need to get more of it in the neighborhoods of need than anywhere else. ‘“Verizon and AT&T agreed with this equity focus and shifted their small cell design to focus on the neighborhoods the city identified as being in high demand.

Harkness takes particular pride in creating a “virtuous circle” that companies are happy to join even after the city has surpassed FCC parameters. Any money raised through telecom permit fees for delivering 5G tiny cells that the city team working on the permits do not directly support will be put into a digital inclusion fund. This created a “closed loop” so that every dollar received from telecommunications partners – at around $ 750 per small cell per year – either directly supports the city workers working on connectivity or back to the underserved ones low income countries is headed community.

The Digital Inclusion Fund is administered by selected community-based organizations that run annual funding cycles. One of the ways the fund connects families and individuals is through libraries, which Harkness called “the spearhead for us in terms of digital inclusion.” During the pandemic in particular, the library system was a major source of connectivity through an expanded hotspot lending program; AT&T provided $ 6.8 million of hotspot equipment for libraries and schools, and the city used coronavirus tools to pay for the connectivity service. Harkness said this had a significant ripple effect. “Our hotspots can connect up to 16 people to one device without interference. What we have found is that you connect the student, you connect up to three generations. “

Cities and telecommunications providers just don’t have the same goals. Private companies will prefer to prioritize the areas with more commercial opportunities, while cities want to ensure fair availability. The San Jose Model provides structure for a path forward with overlapping interests: get permits efficiently and quickly, generate reasonable fees, and partner with some gentle nudge to increase coverage. It’s a good lesson.

Betsy Gardner, research fellow and author for Data-Smart City Solutions, co-authored this column.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He was previously the deputy mayor of New York and mayor of Indianapolis, where he has earned a reputation as a leader in the country in public-private partnership, competition and privatization. Stephen also served as the chief domestic policy advisor to George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and from 1979 to 1990 district attorney for Marion County, Indiana. He wrote The Power of Social Innovation; Governance by Network: the new form of the public sector; Building trust in neighborhoods: making cities work through grassroots citizenship; The City of the 21st Century: Revitalizing Urban America and the Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data Smart Governance.

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