The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) has begun work with President Barack Obama’s pilot initiative to help close the digital divide among local children and families living in federally funded public housing.

ConnectHome is in 27 cities, including San Antonio, as well as in one tribal nation to speed up the implementation of broadband Internet access for residents assisted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The long-term strategy is three-fold: to improve high-speed Internet infrastructure for targeted communities, to provide residents with desktop or laptop computers, and to train residents how to properly use such devices and show how Web-based technology can improve daily life. While ConnectHome is beginning with public housing residents, local stakeholders hope to expand the service to bridge the digital gap for San Antonio’s low-income residents at large.

San Antonio applied for inclusion in the pilot program. HUD Secretary Julián Castro, former San Antonio mayor, announced the 28 select ConnectHome communities in July, which included San Antonio. SAHA’s interim President and CEO David Nisivoccia told the Rivard Report his agency is inviting an array of area governmental agencies, businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions and philanthropic foundations to work together to make ConnectHome successful in San Antonio.

A kickoff meeting, which included a gathering of more than 70 people representing the invited organizations, took place on Friday at the SAHA offices. Secretary Castro offered a few remarks in a prerecorded message, saying “all children deserve a chance at the American dream.”

“This is not just about connecting people, but improving their economic outcomes,” he said.

Regional HUD Administrator Tammye Treviño told the crowd that Secretary Castro has called HUD “the Department of Opportunity.”

“It’s about connecting people with other people and resources that can help them,” she said.

Even with the arrival of Google Fiber and AT&T Gigapower, each of which are set to provide San Antonio customers with ultra-fast fiber Internet service, 25% of the greater San Antonio population currently lacks basic Web access in their homes and apartments. That translates to one in four families missing the basic ability to access Web-based resources, such as job and college applications and health care services.

“That is a challenge in today’s economy because you need (Internet) to fill out a job application and develop a skill set,” David Nisivoccia, interim president and CEO at SAHA, told the Rivard Report. “Second, you have to get the right equipment into people’s hands, and lastly, how do you train people when they get their equipment and take advantage of it?”

Catherine Crago, strategic initiatives manager for Austin Pathways, addresses a kickoff meeting for ConnectHome San Antonio at the San Antonio Housing Authority offices on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
Catherine Crago, strategic initiatives manager for Austin Pathways, addresses a kickoff meeting for ConnectHome San Antonio at the San Antonio Housing Authority offices on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

ConnectHome is modeled after Unlocking the Connection, a program that the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) introduced in late 2014 to help low-income public residents gain access to basic broadband, various devices, digital literacy training and other programs and services via the Internet.

Two nonprofits, Austin Pathways – a HACA subsidiary – and Austin Free-Net, have been vital in helping HACA achieve similar goals with public housing residents in Austin. HUD named Austin’s housing authority agency a mentor of sorts to the 28 ConnectHome communities.

HACA initially offered Google Fiber, which had already laid infrastructure in Austin, broadband access for five of its 18 public housing properties. Across those five properties, 80% have registered for free basic Web service from Google Fiber. More than 40% of those residents have finished free computer classes provided by Austin Free-Net, and have gone on to earn free refurbished computers donated by Austin Community College.

The computers come with 32GB (gigabytes) of educational software, such as Scratch, which among other things can teach children how to code. A donated computer can also be programmed to fit a specific resident’s needs, such as reading and typing a language other than English.

Catherine Crago, strategic initiatives manager for Austin Pathways, explained during the SAHA kickoff meeting that there will be bumps in the road for San Antonio and other ConnectHome communities that have recently started their efforts.

She acknowledged that one challenge is physical connectivity – ensuring existing and new public housing complexes can accommodate broadband infrastructure. Clarissa Ramon, Google Fiber’s community impact manager in San Antonio, told the crowd her company has not yet set a date for the local installation of fiber-optic lines.

Trust is another barrier among targeted residents because many may feel uneasy about using or accepting the services the Internet provides. Crago said ConnectHome aims to provide low-income residents with technological equity and social capital.

“People will ask, ‘Is this really free now and will it be free in the future?” Crago said. “It was important for our residents to hear ‘Yes, it is free.’ We tell them you can pay your light bill online. That way they won’t have to spend hours on a bus to go and pay it. You do the math.”

Ramon shares Crago’s sentiment about the challenges attached to providing low-income residents with basic broadband, high-tech devices and essential training. Relevance and awareness in using the Web is important, he said.

A Google Fiber van parked in front of the San Antonio skyline. Courtesy of the Google Fiber Facebook page.
A Google Fiber van parked in front of the San Antonio skyline. Courtesy of the Google Fiber Facebook page.

Ramon recalled how her mother was once reluctant to do online banking but once she let in, she found it easy and comfortable. Ramon said ConnectHome, along with the coming fiber-optic services, will help provide public housing residents with an invaluable, stable Web connection. Currently 39% of San Antonio households have a fixed broadband connection at home, according to Ramon’s research.

“It’s important to demystify the Internet and make it relevant,” she said. Attendees at the meeting broke out into work groups to discuss how best to address the long-term issues of physical connectivity, devices and training for low-income residents. One of those priorities includes, as regional HUD Administrator Tammye Treviño said, a need for involvement from various educational institutions and groups.

Richard Milk, SAHA’s director of policy and planning, told the Rivard Report there’s a broad range of residents’ needs to consider. For example, a student may have a special focus to support his or her academic needs or an elderly resident who wants to learn how to make life’s necessities, such as paying bills or researching health, easier by using the Internet.

“We’ve heard lots of stories where an elderly resident needs to be encouraged to play with the technology available but, once they do, they tend to find it important to their lives,” Milk said. “We also recognize that parents have their own dynamic. Maybe their way to usage is through their kids, to see what the kids are doing, keep tabs on them and then they ask ‘How do I use this myself? How do I use this to help my family?’”

According to Milk, SAHA has identified five properties that will be in the early stages of local ConnectHome implementation: the elderly and disabled communities of Villa Tranchese and Fair Avenue, and the family communities of Springview, Alazan Apache and Cassiano Homes.

GigaPower cities; established, upcoming, and potential.
GigaPower cities; established, upcoming, and potential.

SAHA can enhance the existing WiFi connectivity in those five properties’ community rooms while they await the installation of broadband infrastructure, Milk said.

“If we can expand the power, range and scope of the utilities in those rooms, we can talk about coordinating usage of those rooms. Training can happen on devices,” he said. “We have two computers in each community room. What do we need to do to bring in four, six, eight computers?”

Nisivoccia said the development of partnerships and specific strategies will happen over time and involve many more meetings.

“Then we’ll come out with goals and metrics, and we’ll measure ourselves against those,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor offered brief comments to the audience.

“It’s going to be really important for us to build out a framework and a network of organizations to help us achieve this goal,” Mayor Taylor told the Rivard Report after the kickoff meeting.

“We started out on the access question, trying to make broadband more accessible. We have big wins with Google Fiber and AT&T Gigapower, but it’s not just about access. People have to learn to manipulate their devices for job training, school, health care. In order to connect people, we have to focus on the next phase of things.”

*Top image: Tammye Treviño, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, addresses a kickoff meeting for ConnectHome San Antonio at the San Antonio Housing Authority offices on Friday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.