Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Education and training can be the great equalizer, but San Antonians who don't have reliable access to the internet and computers are unable to apply for jobs (applications for which have mostly gone online), and they often lack the same ability as their connected peers to study and complete academic requirements, said Jordana Barton, senior advisor at the San Antonio Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
"If you know a little bit of code, and you have a computer, you can start a [company like] Google or Airbnb," Barton said. "That’s the promise of the internet. The challenge is when people are left out and don’t have access."
Barton was among four area leaders to speak Tuesday at the UTSA Downtown Campus at the Digital Inclusion Forum, a series of presentations and panel discussion about the consequences of San Antonio's digital divide and how to bridge the gap.
The Federal Reserve monitors access to the internet because digital inclusion is analogous with economic inclusion, said Barton, who also serves on the local Digital Inclusion Alliance's steering committee. She said when it comes to internet connections, San Antonio falls in the bottom third for access nationwide.
"We have a big challenge," she said. "One in four people in San Antonio don't have access to the internet."
San Antonio's Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins said the City is trying to close the digital divide through empathy more than technology because understanding the access-to-services problem is key to addressing the issue.
"Apps don't solve the world's problems, people do," Hopkins said.
Some of the City's programs aimed at tackling the digital divide are slated for three designated innovation zones: Brooks on the Southeast Side, the area around the South Texas Medical Center, and downtown.
The zones will be used as laboratories to test cutting-edge technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, smart streetlights, and fiber internet deployment.
VIA Metropolitan Transit, CPS Energy, the San Antonio River Authority, Bexar County, and the San Antonio Water System are among the organizations partnering with the City to craft the so-called smart-city vision known as SmartSA, a technology-centered plan aimed at improving residents' quality of life.
Jo Ana Alvarado, director of innovative technology at the San Antonio Housing Authority, spoke about the organization's SMARTI project, which on Tuesday won $100,000 in grant funds from the Mozilla Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
The project will install a Wi-Fi network that will be equally distributed among the residents of Cassiano Homes, a 499-unit, low-income housing community on the West Side. The Housing Authority is using 42 solar light poles within the complex to power the network.
For Steven Hussain, who serves as chief mission services officer for Goodwill San Antonio, access to the internet and a computer is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Hussain said students who come through Goodwill's Good Careers Academy cannot succeed if they lack digital literacy and access.
And the disparities will only grow starker with automation eliminating jobs such as the ones his commercial driver license students get – some earning starting salaries of as much as $55,000 – when they graduate from the program, he said.
"It's imperative we get ahead of this," Hussain said. "I think we can define our future as opposed to letting it define us."
Increasing digital access can foster a strong middle class, which is the engine of a good economy, Barton said.
"What we’re saying is … we actually can intervene and change the supposedly inevitable outcome," she said.