Living Without the Internet in the Heart of Silicon Valley

4 min
Twenty-eight percent of residents in San Jose don't have access to broadband internet. Four percent of residents aren't connected at all.  (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

Expanding broadband internet access to low-income communities has been a priority for San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo for some time now. So it came as a surprise in late January when he quit a Federal Communications Commission committee charged with improving access nationally.

"It’s apparent that ultimately the FCC is in the industry’s pocket and has no intention of doing anything to expand digital access," Liccardo said shortly after the announcement.

While the internet is a driving force behind life in the Bay Area, for many low-income families in East San Jose, it’s still not easy to get online.

To get an idea of what this problem looks like, Gabriel Hernandez takes me for a walk through a neighborhood in East San Jose. Hernandez works for Somos Mayfair, a social service nonprofit.

"I guarantee if we went down this street, you’d probably find maybe five houses that have a computer in the house," Hernandez said.

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Most of the residents in this neighborhood are Latino and working class. Hernandez says that for those he works with, it's hard to think about paying for the internet when they're in survival mode.

"Families have to make those choices. Do I eat? Do I pay rent? Or do I pay the phone?" Hernandez says.

Luiz Mendoza, 51, lives in this neighborhood, in a rented room with four of her children. She fled a domestic violence situation and is raising all of her kids on a salary she earns as a child care worker. The family shares two cellphones -- they don’t have a computer. This is a major pain for Mendoza’s 15-year-old daughter, Annette.

"Sometimes I need homework in email and sometimes I can’t get it because I don’t have Wi-Fi," she says.

Annette uses a hot spot on her mother’s phone to get on the internet. But doing research or using Google Slides on a tiny phone screen is hard.

"Sometimes the hot spot is just really slow and doesn’t let you work on it, and so sometimes you just have to miss it," she said.

Annette sometimes skips lunch to do her work in the school’s computer lab. She admits there are times when she just doesn’t do it at all.

Annette's story is more common than we might realize, says Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer for the city of San Jose.

"Seventy percent of homework is done online, so what you’re doing is cutting out opportunities for onramps for those children," she says.

Santosham and her staff conducted a study with Stanford University and found that 28 percent of families living in the city don’t have access to broadband internet. Most of those families are living below the poverty line, making less than $15,000 a year. Santosham says they’re trying to combat this by bringing in more competition. AT&T and Comcast are the two main companies that provide internet service in the city.

"Getting more competition for the private sector to come in and lower prices and compete against each other, that will result in bringing down the cost and getting more people on the services," Santosham says.

Last summer, Comcast launched a new service in San Jose for low-income families -- offering internet for as low as $10 a month. The study found that for many families, $10 is still too much to pay. And some argue at this lowest tier the internet is so slow it’s sometimes useless.

Anthony Ramos with his mother, Rodio, and sister, Catherine, outside their home in East San Jose. Anthony says their internet access is so slow, it sometimes prohibits him from completing his homework. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

This is the case for the Ramos family. They recently signed up for that low-cost internet service with Comcast, but 11-year-old Anthony Ramos says trying to work online with his classmates can be excruciating.

"Just a day ago they asked me to be in a group chat, but when I get on the internet it's very slow," he says.

Ramos says it can take several minutes for a page to load, so instead he uses the internet at school or a community center to do his homework.

"I do most of my social studies homework over there because my internet here is not that good," he says.

Schools, libraries and community centers are good options, says the city. As part of a digital inclusion plan, the city is working on outreach efforts to let more people know about them. The city also wants to expand its free Wi-Fi network to places like East San Jose.

All of this is to make certain that everyone who lives in the heart of Silicon Valley can be connected.

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