"Making the improbable possible." "Beat the odds." These are just a few of the quotes you'll hear from this episode of Broadband Conversations, featuring San Jose, California Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham. From her parents' upbringing to her childhood to her career working on behalf of her community, listeners will be inspired by Santosham's personal story and commitment to digital equity.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Welcome back to Broadband Conversations. I'm Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, and this is the podcast where I talk to some amazing women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries.
You'll hear about what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is next for the future.
My guest today is someone whose career has been dedicated to getting individuals, cities, and communities online.
Shireen Santosham is the Chief Innovation Officer for the Mayor of San Jose, California.
San Jose, of course, is the tenth largest city in the country and in the heart of Silicon Valley.
And among Shireen's many other accomplishments, she was recently named as one of Government Technology's top 25 doers, dreamers, and drivers, which sounds like a terrific list to be a part of.
So, Shireen, it's great to talk to you today. Thank you for joining me.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Thank you for having me.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, let's start at the very beginning. And by that, I mean, how did you get to where you are today?
MS. SANTOSHAM: Well, I think that's a big question for anyone, but I came from a family where the improbable was made possible.
And you know, by that I mean, you know, my parents were very service-oriented, and my mother had really beat the odds.
So, she came from a working-class family in India, a family in which there was actually quite a lot of gender discrimination against her as a girl child, but she beat the odds and she became a doctor and, you know, I really take a lot of example from her.
And similarly, my father, he actually couldn't read until about the age of nine but went on to also become a physician.
And when we were young, he took the whole family out to live on the White Mountain Apache Tribe in rural Arizona, a place that today even still has a 70 to 80 percent unemployment rate, and worked on, you know, vaccines for children there. And those vaccines are now in about 200 countries around the world.
And so, you know, I was brought up in a family that was really, you know, thought big about public service, as well as overcoming the odds. And so, I've always been able to take some risks in my career.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's an amazing story and I liked how you just started it with making the improbable possible.
So, tell me how you do that on a daily basis in your job as the chief innovation officer for San Jose.
Like, what does it entail? Describe to me what a typical day looks like.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Well, you know, it's never a dull moment in a big city like San Jose. Usually, we start the day with a staff meeting with the mayor, talk about the issues, talk about what's been in, you know, the press the night before.
I usually hop online and check with my team virtually on Slack or Trello to look at, you know, the 30 plus initiatives that we're working on in the city. Everything from broadband to Internet of Things technology, to autonomous vehicles, to developing apps for civic engagement.
And then I also have, you know, usually a pretty intense schedule of meetings. So, I'll meet with our very talented city department staff and also with our tech community.
You know, we're in the heart of Silicon Valley, so we have partnerships with companies like Airbnb or Facebook or Box, and so we really pride ourselves on working well with the private sector.
And then sometimes, you know, I'll be interacting with the press or I'll be out in the community talking to people because cities are where policy really meets action.
And so, you're constantly hearing directly from your residents and I think that's what makes it a very exciting part of government to work in.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you mentioned you have 30 plus initiatives. Tell me about one or more of them that get you really excited.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Well, I get really excited about the possibility of an autonomous future and autonomous vehicles and what autonomous transportation is going to do to cities.
So, I think it's going to be the most transformational technology that we're going to see in our lifetime.
And there certainly is a long way to go in the space, but we, in San Jose, brought together a roundtable of about 30 companies and had a conversation with them about, you know, what would they like to see working with the city.
And they told us about how they would really like access to information around EV charging and around data that we have in the city, as well as, you know, what are the use cases that we're very interested in.
And, you know, we want to incentivize shared autonomous electric vehicles in San Jose that are integrated with public transit, and the question about how you do that is quite a large problem, but we are committed to working with the companies on this issue.
And so, we are taking all this information, we launched a pilot program, and we actually got over 30 applications for that program and are now in the process of, you know, negotiating with several of those companies and we'll be launching several pilots next year.
So, we think it's a really exciting space and we want to make sure that everybody has access to that technology, so it's done in an equitable way.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that sounds really neat.
How far off do you think that future is that you're describing?
MS. SANTOSHAM: I think the full transformation is really probably 15 to 20 years out, but, you know, transportation is something you've got to plan for today because, you know, the transition happens slowly.
But I think when we reach the tipping point, it's going to happen pretty fast, I think, and probably, you know, in cities, probably in the next 10 to 15 years.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's neat, too, how you're describing integrating it with municipal transportation and public policy this early in the game.
So, one of the other things that I know is that in San Jose, you have led the effort to make it what you call one of the most innovative cities in America by 2020.
So, tell me what that means and what you're doing to make that happen.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Sure. It's -- you know, it's the grand challenge that we have from our mayor to make the city the most innovative city America, as you said, and, you know, that all starts with connectivity.
And right now, we think about infrastructure as roads and bridges, but we really need to start thinking about broadband and Internet of Things technology as infrastructure investments.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, absolutely.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Yeah. So, we're starting with investments in our broadband space. We launched an IoT strategy last year and are working with a number of different providers to test Internet of Things technologies across the city.
We view the city as a platform for those types of technologies. And, you know, once that groundwork is laid, we really need to make sure that we aren't leaving people out because certainly as, you know, technology speeds ahead and connectivity speeds ahead, if we don't bring everyone with us, then, you know, we're not really doing our jobs as a government.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So what efforts are you making, in a city like San Jose, to prevent residents, or some portion of residents, from being consigned to the wrong side of the digital divide?
I know that's something you think about a lot.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Yes. Absolutely. And you know, in my last job before I came to work for the mayor, I worked at the GSMA, the global telecoms industry association, and worked on a program to assess the gender gap in mobile phone and internet access around the world.
And we did studies in, you know, dozens of countries and were able to really see, you know, the impact that the technology could have in a positive way for women. And so, I took that idea and applied it to our own community.
I know one of the issue areas that you're really passionate about is getting good data about broadband connectivity.
And you know, in our community, we can't necessarily rely on the Form 477 data. It's too high-level for us.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And that's the data that the FCC collects which, you know, is a high level, but I'm sure, sitting where you sit on the ground, you want to figure out how to get something that's more granular, right?
MS. SANTOSHAM: That's right. We really need almost neighborhood-by-neighborhood data.
And so, we raised a little bit of money and we partnered with Stanford University, and we did street surveys with our low-income community with children.
And we asked them, you know, do they B- are they connected? What kinds of connections do they have, whether it's mobile or wire line at home, how they access the internet, what their children were doing to do -B what kinds of devices were they using to do their homework, what could they afford.
And, you know, what we found is that half of our low-income population does not have wired broadband at home.
And if you look at the families that are very low income that have less than $15,000 a year of income, 80 percent of them don't have access to the internet.
And many of those families even said that the $10 a month low-cost plans offered by many of the companies are still too expensive for them.
And so, you know, we're in a situation where a large portion of our population -B the low-income population is about 20 percent of the city -- really doesn't have as much access as you would expect in the heart of Silicon Valley.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. SANTOSHAM: And that means the B-
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I mean, it's hard to imagine. You know, you're kind of the iconic center of Silicon Valley and you're describing that 20 percent of your low-income households have no access or unreliable access to the internet.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Yes, that's right. It's B- yeah, it's about half of the low-income population.
And, you know, that means that children that are born on the steps of these Silicon Valley companies won't have access to them in terms of good jobs.
And that's, you know, really heartbreaking, you know, for our community, and I think it's something that's felt, you know, all across the country when you think about getting left out of opportunity.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. Well, the first thing you can do is do the kind of data collection you described, and at the level of detail you've done, it's really extraordinary, but what are you going to do with all that data now?
What initiatives have you begun to think about or start?
MS. SANTOSHAM: Yeah. So, we are, you know, looking at it from a digital divide and equity standpoint, but we're also looking at it from an economic competitiveness standpoint and the race to 5G in our community.
So, we wanted to make sure that we upgrade all the broadband infrastructure in the city, and we've negotiated agreements now with several telecommunications companies to invest about $500 million in upgrading our fiber infrastructure as well as deploying over 4,000 small cells in the city.
And as part of those agreements, you know, some of the money will go into a digital inclusion fund that will provide about $24 million to our community to go into community-based organizations that want to fund coding camps for kids, as well as devices and digital literacy programs in basic connectivity, as well as beefing up some of those programs in our public library and other civic institutions.
And, you know, this is really a special initiative for us because there's literally no single source of philanthropic dollars.
In our community, there's very little money available federally for us to address this issue. And so, we're really excited about the possibilities here.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you make this good point, absent there being some pool of money that everyone can turn to, what kind of ideas are you experimenting with that other cities might want to borrow from, you know, the kind of efforts that you're making that you think across the board could make cities smarter, more innovative, or better connected for all of their residents?
MS. SANTOSHAM: You know, I think this is a really important question because it's about framing where you put your effort.
And too often, you know, smart cities are pitted against paving roads or money for public safety, and what's really important is to keep the resident at the center of your efforts.
So, understanding that, you know, in order to service your residents in the best way possible, you know, technology is a tool to do that.
And we have these amazing resources that weren't available, you know, five years ago or ten years ago that allows you to really work in a different way.
So, it's as much about, you know, people and process as it is about the technology itself.
And, you know, we try to be radically user-centric in our city, so we do things like when we released our app for service requests so you can report things like potholes or streetlight outages, you can do it with the push of a button, the way you can when you're ordering something from Amazon Prime.
But what was special about the way we did it is we engaged about 200 community members in user testing of the product before we released it.
So, we, you know, borrowed things from the tech community and we really, you know, utilized all of our residents in the process. And I think, you know, a lot of cities need to start thinking about the resident at the center and how can technology enable better service.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. And how you can make it easier for people to be good citizens in their communities by reporting that information if your technology is accessible to all.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Absolutely.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, how about a really high-level question. Tell us why connectivity is so important on a local level.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Well, I think that, you know, connectivity is now just part of being a fully empowered individual.
And by that, I mean, you know, that you have access to all of the information that everybody else does for jobs, for employment, for emergency response, you know.
We live in an area where there is a lot of worry around, you know, the big earthquake coming. And if you're not connected, then you are at risk of, you know, not having all the information that you need.
And so, you know, connectivity is almost as essential as, I'd say, you know, basic services like water and electricity, and will increasingly be so.
I mean, without it, you know, you really, you really don't have social mobility anymore.
And, you know, San Jose used to lead the country in social mobility, and in order to retain that you really need to maintain high levels of internet access for the whole population.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I totally agree. I think if you want to have a fair shot at success in the digital age, you need to be connected.
So, Shireen, when I close out, I like to ask people a few questions, a quick take on how you see the internet.
So, let's start with this: what's the first thing you recall you ever did on the internet or online?
MS. SANTOSHAM: Great question.
I was, I think I was in sixth grade and I had a fourth grader show me how to surf, how to surf the internet using Prodigy, a connection on a dial-up modem.
And so, it was a whole new world and it seemed fast at the time, but right now I think we think it's very slow.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. But I like that you said that you were the sixth grader and you had the fourth grader instruct you.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So, what's the last thing you did on the internet?
MS. SANTOSHAM: I was streaming music while I worked and preparing for this.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, terrific. Sounds good.
And then the big-picture one. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life looks like or what do you hope it looks like?
MS. SANTOSHAM: I think it's going to look very different than how it looks today. I think we're going to be much more immersed in the world of augmented reality, if not closer to virtual reality.
So, most of the way, you know, our homes will be built will be with smart walls, and we'll have, you know, smart cars and autonomous vehicles taking us places, and it will be immersive, and we will have much less interaction on things like iPads and computers.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I think you're right about that.
Now, before we go, I want to make sure that folks can follow you and keep up to date with what you're doing. So why don't you provide some locational information, perhaps online.
MS. SANTOSHAM: Sure. You can follow my Twitter feed at, which is @ssantosham, or you can go to @sjmoti, which is our official San Jose Mayor's Office of Technology and Innovation Twitter.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Fantastic. So that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations.
Thank you for joining me, Shireen, and thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.