Santa Clara County wants to close the digital divide
Supervisor Cindy Chavez speaking at a news conference on Feb. 14 about expanding high-speed internet to underserved parts of Santa Clara County. Photo courtesy of Chavez's office.

    Santa Clara County policymakers are reaffirming their commitment to give tens of thousands of residents faster, more reliable internet.

    During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, county officials promised to issue a draft master plan no later than November for closing the digital divide in the county and expanding broadband internet service to unserved and underserved residents. Supervisors unanimously approved a progress report and asked officials to explore short-term options to bring broadband service to some residents in the next six to 18 months.

    Last December, supervisors unanimously approved creating a municipally-owned broadband service provider to give residents better internet access. Roughly a quarter of Santa Clara County households don’t have access to the internet. In San Jose, 36% of Latino families and 47% of African American families lacked broadband internet, according to a 2017 study.

    Approximately 70,000 county residents don’t have access to the internet at modern speeds, and nearly 690,000 can only get access through a single provider.

    “What that means is they’re really at the mercy of what that provider is both willing to provide, and at the cost they’re willing to provide it at,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, adding the county has been unable to get large internet service providers to provide affordable connectivity to undeserved parts of the county for 25 years.

    The county has an agreement with a subcontractor for CCT Technologies to prepare a broadband master plan, and is considering options for how to deploy high-speed internet, including fiber optic networks. The cost of adding this infrastructure would be significant: a 22-mile fiber project in Palo Alto will cost approximately $22-28 million. Costs are anticipated to be higher for a county-owned network covering underserved areas.

    Last July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 156, which promised a $6 billion investment in California’s broadband infrastructure. Supervisor Susan Ellenberg noted this funding has allowed counties across the state to develop infrastructure for high-speed internet serving previously neglected populations. She emphasized the importance of exploring interim solutions to bring broadband to different parts of the county as quickly as possible.

    “Are there immediate solutions that are less invasive that we might be able to do more quickly while thinking longer term about bigger and more permanent investments?” Ellenberg said.

    Several residents and advocates voiced support and urged the board to move quickly to take advantage of state funds.

    “I wanted to emphasize as the last speaker did—internet access is a human right,” said Devon Conley, president of the Digital Equity Coalition and trustee of the Mountain View Whisman School District. “We have seen its impact on students and our families in my own school district here in Mountain View.”

    Sylvia Leong, board member of the Cupertino Union School District, said it’s imperative for the county to proceed as fast as possible with its broadband projects. She noted the state is also providing a $750 million loan loss reserve fund to help local governments finance the construction of the last leg of broadband projects.

    “Just speaking as a trustee, we really believe that this is something that is good for our residents, all students and something that really the county should take the lead on,” she said.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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