San Jose, AT&T invest in free internet access for students
Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco expresses her support of the city's partnership with AT&T at a virtual press conference Monday Aug. 8.

For many, the pressure to work and attend school remotely during the coronavirus pandemic has amplified Silicon Valley’s digital divide. But a new plan announced Monday by Mayor Sam Liccardo and AT&T will bring 11,000 wireless internet hotspots and 4G LTE data plans to K-12 students and low-income households lacking internet connection.

“It is important that we move forward together to take care of our children. No matter where they live, they must have free access to wonderful free education and not be concerned about being able to get online and find the tools that they need,” Councilmember Pam Foley said.

By the start of the 2020-2021 school year, 3,000 hotspots will be available for a 90-day checkout period at the public library. Those who need service for longer can get a one-time checkout extension for 30 more days.

The county Office of Education will work directly with the San Jose Unified School District to deploy the remaining 8,000 hotspots to students. Because the free high speed internet and data plans can connect up to 15 devices, the plan can benefit households with multiple students and individuals who need at-home internet access for up to one year. The city has been identifying families who qualify since last Spring, but others interested in the program should reach out to their local school district.

“This opens up the world of possibilities, certainly to the child who needs to be learning online, but also to the parent who needs to be looking for a job or perhaps looking for health care information online,” Liccardo said. “And all the other ways we critically depend on the broadband connection. So I am so deeply grateful that all of our partners have come together in this way.”

The hotspot program stemmed from the COVID-19 Digital Inclusion Expenditure Plan unanimously approved by San Jose leaders last month. In addition to the free hotspots and data plans, the program will provide computing devices for students and will increase community internet access within the East Side Union High School District and in other libraries, community centers and parks, according to city Library Director Jill Bourne who spearheaded the initiative.

“Access to internet and a device is a social justice issue,” Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said. According to Carrasco, the pandemic has been especially devastating to children who are at an educational disadvantage as a result of the digital divide.

“This partnership is critical for so many families that lack access to the necessary tools to complete distance learning. We’ve seen that COVID-19 has been particularly cruel to families who live in under-invested districts, such as the one that I represent,” Carrasco said.

According to a 2017 city report, 30 percent of San Jose students who lacked in-home internet access listed school as their primary location for completing homework. This leaves them with few other options amid school closures. The same report found Black and Latino families are more likely to lack internet services than other groups.

American Community Survey data shows more than 100,000 San Jose residents lacked a broadband internet subscription as of 2019.

The city invested  $8.2 million in expanding digital services through the Digital Inclusion Expenditure Plan. About $3.5 million went to the hotspot partnership with AT&T. Funding draws from the city’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, Digital Inclusion Fund which partners with community organizations and state grants.

The plan has a broader goal of equipping 50,000 San Jose households with full broadband access within the next 10 years.

“This school year, access to the internet will be essential for participation and education,” said Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan. “New requirements will ensure daily live interaction occurs between students, teachers and their peers. And like water and power, internet access by way of WiFi is an essential utility. Providing equitable access to the internet not only supports learning, it also promotes access to services and opportunities for health, wellness and safety.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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