A library patron works on his computer next to the art galley at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors took its first steps Tuesday toward creating a publicly owned internet service provider that would offer high-speed service to underserved residents and businesses.

The proposal from Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Susan Ellenberg would create an ISP operated solely by the county or with other local jurisdictions with the goal of expanding internet access to both residents who lack reliable internet access and those who only have access through one provider.

According to the California State Association of Counties, some 70,000 Santa Clara County residents have no reliable internet access, while another 680,000 only have one high-speed internet option, allowing large ISPs to set prices as high as they want, Chavez said.

“We’ve had a long, successful tradition of local government operating utilities,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting, referencing local jurisdictions like Santa Clara and San Jose that provide water and electricity service. “I am confident that we have an opportunity to be successful in internet services.”

As part of Tuesday’s action, the board unanimously voted to direct county staff to report back in February with options for the county to provide internet service to residents and businesses.

The county has yet to formally set a standard for what constitutes “high-speed internet.”

As one possibility, county officials referenced a state funding package passed earlier this year that funds projects providing internet service with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.

That funding package, Senate Bill 156, makes $2 billion in grants available for broadband infrastructure projects that connect to individual homes, offices and businesses.

“I believe the county has an opportunity to play a leadership role by providing affordable internet service, because the private sector has had decades to connect the underserved and unserved in our county and have not done so yet,” Chavez said.

Chavez and Ellenberg both argued a public-sector internet service provider would enable to county to close the “digital divide” between residents who have adequate internet access and those who don’t.

Ellenberg and multiple educators who commented in support of the proposal noted that the digital divide has existed for years, but became more acute during the pandemic when children were forced to attend school online and many didn’t have the internet access required to do so.

“In a world where doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences are predominantly digital, this investment will ensure that all our county’s children and their families have access to the supports that will stabilize them and set them up for success,” Ellenberg said.

Once fully operational, the county plans to prioritize establishing internet service for residents and businesses in parts of the county that do not have access to “modern” internet speeds, particularly in eastern San Jose and the county’s southern portion.

“The best time to close the digital divide was 20 years ago,” Ellenberg said. “But the second-best time is now.”