This article originally appeared in Government Technology.
Kip Harkness, the deputy city manager for San Jose, Calif., owns the city’s IT and innovation portfolios. He came to the city from a private-sector tech background, yet now one of his most significant innovations deals with the most basic of issues: how to connect low-income constituents to the Internet. There’s an inherent irony in the poor connectivity that many low-income folks suffer right in the middle of America’s tech heartland; according to Harkness, “despite the fact that we’re the capital of Silicon Valley, the speeds that you would have on your phone getting off an airplane here might cause you to think you’d landed in the wrong country.”
In 2016, Harkness brought on FUSE Fellow Dolan Beckel to explore broadband and equitable access in San Jose. “At that point, nobody in the city had an 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 telecom companies over small cell placement, the city proposed a collaborative relationship that would work for both. As Harkness described it, AT&T and Verizon “signed on with us that between the two of them they would install 4,000 5G small cells. And so, for the last 18 months prior to the pandemic, we were actually scaled up and had that fully going, so that fortuitously by the time we went into shelter-in-place, we had a fully digital system already built.”
He described another “very fortuitous happenstance” during this time: the move to digital permitting. Most of the telecom permits were already paperless pre-pandemic, which meant that the move to remote work didn’t disrupt the process. The permitting led to a partnership that is the first of its kind at this large of a scale and ended up being perfectly timed as the city went into remote work and distance learning.
For Harkness, equity was always a part of his IT and infrastructure plans. “When the pandemic hit, there were no pieces of paper to be lost, we were able to permit at 70 [small cells] a week,” he explained.
“At that point, we sat down in partnership mode and said, ‘We want to continue to accelerate connectivity, but as you build out the next round, we need more of that to happen in the neighborhoods of need rather than in other places.’” Verizon and AT&T agreed with this equity focus and shifted their small cell construction to focus on the neighborhoods that the city had identified as high need.
Harkness is particularly proud of creating a “virtuous cycle” that companies are happy to sign on to, even when the city went above and beyond the FCC parameters. Any money that comes in through the telecom permitting fees for 5G small cell deployments that doesn’t directly support the city team working on the permissions is put into a Digital Inclusion Fund. This created a “closed loop,” so that every dollar that comes in from telecom partners — at roughly $750 per small cell per year — is either directly supporting city employees working on connectivity or being funneled back into the under-connected and low-income community.
The Digital Inclusion Fund is managed by select community-based organizations that conduct annual grant cycles. One of the ways that the fund helps get families and individuals connected is through libraries, which Harkness described as “the tip of the spear for us on digital inclusion.” Especially with the pandemic, the library system has been a main source of connectivity through an expanded hot spot borrowing program; AT&T provided $6.8 million of hot spot equipment for libraries and schools, and the city used coronavirus relief funds to pay for the connectivity service. Harkness said this had a significant ripple effect. “Our hot spots can connect up to 16 people on a device without degradation. What we found is, you connect the student, you connect up to three generations.”
Cities and telecom providers simply do not have the same goals. Private companies will prefer to prioritize those areas with more commercial opportunity, while cities want to ensure equitable availability. The San Jose model provides structure for a path forward with overlapping interests: Issue the permits efficiently and quickly, generate reasonable fees, and use a partnership with some gentle nudging to increase coverage. It’s a good lesson.
Want to learn more? Listen to Kip Harkness on the accompanying Data-Smart City Pod, hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith.