One year after Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) first proposed a municipal broadband strategy to City Council, the matter will come to a vote Thursday, providing newly-elected Mayor Ivy Taylor and her colleagues the opportunity to lead San Antonio's public institutions into an era of greater digital connectivity.
Thursday's agenda will include a vote to license wireless provider Verizon with a citywide permit that would create a new revenue stream for the City and could be adopted by other wireless providers, generating even more revenue. In sum, Verizon could expand service throughout the metro area without applying for individual permits each time it wants to install new antennae.
Those revenues eventually could be used to activate a citywide, CPS Energy-owned fiber network to connect all municipal and interested public entities into a single hi-speed wireless network. Many people are unaware of the citywide fiber network that CPS Energy began to construct in San Antonio two decades ago to meet its own long-term, energy-management needs. At the time, the public utility's decision was seen as a threat to cable and wireless service providers and it was agreed statewide that public networks would not be made available directly or indirectly to consumers.
That has changed. As Nirenberg points out, CPS Energy is owned by the City of San Antonio and the now-completed fiber network is a public asset that should be put to the use of public good.
Thursday's actions could send a message to Google and hasten the arrival of Google Fiber to the City. Right now, San Antonio is in the third tier of Google Fiber cities: Tier I cities have Google Fiber, Tier II cities are scheduled to receive the service sometime soon, and Tier III cities are on a waiting list.
“We’ve been working on these issues since literally Day One of being in office in 2013,” Nirenberg said. “I had my policy chief meeting with the broadband playmakers here on my first day at City Hall.”
Last year at this time, Nirenberg was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC), an appointment that puts him at the same table with U.S. governors and big-city mayors who also care about public digital access.
There are 16 members on the national committee, which meets quarterly, and represents the interests of state, local and tribal governments across the country on FCC-related matters.
“It’s humbling to be there as a council member from San Antonio, to be sure, but it also gives our city a remarkably strong voice in the formulation of technology policy at the federal level," Nirenberg said.
Speaking about the local initiative, Nirenberg said, “We’re looking at a major watershed policy initiative that would allow for a dedicated stream of funding. Everything we’ve been working on for the past two-plus years fits into this overall communications strategy."
A crucial piece of the material on Thursday's agenda is a new wireless agreement with Verizon, which should produce a revenue stream towards meeting the fiscal demands of the overall broadband agreement.
"The wireless agreement is a significant step in putting San Antonio on the leading edge of what has become a critical national priority: expanding wireless infrastructure and capacity in U.S. cities. It also provides revenue for us to continually invest in ourselves to become a 21st-century connected city," says Nirenberg. "We aren't just getting on board, we will be driving the engine."
The comprehensive broadband strategy that Nirenberg proposed has four main pillars to it, he said, including "the balance between public and private providers; enhancing competition and high-speed broadband access; the cleaning up and making more efficient our zoning services, to allow for the expansion of broadband and mobile technology; and working with our federal and state partners to make sure that the city has the ability to maintain a revenue stream to build infrastructure.”
The other big deal is the prospect of City of San Antonio-Bexar County partnership.
"Our discussions with Bexar County have been very fruitful, and they will be presenting a resolution to Commissioners Court to become an active and vested partner to bring a municipal fiber network into reality, lighting up the dark fiber as we begin connecting institutional partners," says Nirenberg.
In his “State of the County” address last month, Judge Nelson Wolff spoke repeatedly about the importance of broadband access, and certainly Wolff’s vision for BiblioTech’s placement on the Southside was an effort to address the digital divide.
“The county also recognizes the primal importance of technology,” Nirenberg said, "and specifically digital communication."
The history of San Antonio’s relationship with broadband strategy is an interesting one, and in many ways a pace-setting one for the nation.
While Austin gets more attention, particularly as a high-tech hub and designated Google Fiber city, San Antonio is working through the growing pains familiar to many other major U.S. cities, but with a unique advantage.
“Ring of dark fiber” might sound like a riff off an old Johnny Cash song, but it’s actually descriptive of a capacity-building move that CPS Energy launched more than 20 years ago to lay more fiber-optic cable beneath the city than anyone had reason to anticipate ever using. Today, the existence of that same fiber highway means that lighting up the San Antonio Area Broadband Network (SAABN) could be closer to reality than imagined, once final negotiations over funding are resolved.
“Cities around the country are beginning to look at their own fiber infrastructures, most of which are either nascent or non-existent,” Nirenberg said. He mentioned that Los Angeles, for example, just issued an RFP “that they would like someone to build a fiber network that they would own and operate.”
San Antonio already has a fiber network ready to be publicly activated. The city-wide high-speed network, known as COSANet, has a history dating years back, more fully explained here.
Former Council member Leticia Ozuna, a technology consultant, authored a white paper about this unused, dark fiber, and succeeded in putting it on the map as a policy issue for people who had forgotten about its existence or didn't even know it existed.
“For the last 17 years, with credit to Hugh Miller and our IT staff,” Nirenberg said, “he’s been working with CPS to help them complete their rings: two concentric rings of dark fiber around the city, owned by CPS, which in turn is owned by the City.”
It’s pretty remarkable and prescient for a city to be laying capacity-building high-speed cable “and not knowing what it would be used for,” Nirenberg added. But soon after the cable was laid, legislative challenges arose here and elsewhere in the country regarding competition with traditional Internet service providers.
“Here in San Antonio, the opportunity presented by municipal fiber is significant, because we can basically open the floodgates for education, health care, research, economic development — that should view broadband and digital communication infrastructure as a basic utility. We can leverage that because it’s already here, and we have the legal authority to create a network that connects those institutions with one another,” Nirenberg said.
From his perspective working with the FCC, Nirenberg sees Chairman Tom Wheeler as charging the authority with “breaking down barriers to infrastructure development and bringing the United States into the new century of digital communication.”
Consequently, “one of his charges has been to challenge the state legislation that prevents municipalities and local governments from utilizing their own fiber in this way.
"But with regard to getting fiber to the home, we are in a great situation, because the San Antonio broadband market is saturated with competition. And with Google Fiber coming in, and AT&T and Time-Warner offering new services — we’ve been working with them — and with our digital policy in general to make sure that competition is thriving, we can look forward to higher speeds, better access, more innovative offerings, and ultimately — lower prices. That is the whole ‘Digital Divide’ issue.”
The Digital Divide
Unfamiliar with the Digital Divide? It’s all about the “haves” and the “have-nots” to the Internet and high-speed access, a major issue for many in San Antonio.
“It’s pretty clear that if you look at a map of broadband access that it tracks with socio-economics,” said Nirenberg in a previous Rivard Report article.
Low socio-economic status, Spanish-language preference and disability are three variables that correlate to little digital access or proficiency, as this presentation by Lew Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology for the Pew Research Center shows.
“But what we’re finding is that those zip codes that are completely dark in terms of having broadband — they have access,” Nirenberg said.
“Time-Warner is basically to the curb in every residence in San Antonio. But there’s a tremendous gap in digital literacy and understanding (how to use) broadband services. We are beginning to look at public education as a way of bridging the Digital Divide because it’s not necessarily infrastructure anymore. It’s costs and competition, which we have a great way of affecting, and it’s also digital literacy, which we have a desperate need to affect.”
An article in the New York Times mocked San Antonio’s broadband speeds as embarrassingly slower than those in the Latvian capital of Riga, but a recent search on Ookla, a research firm that measures broadband speeds, lists its broadband speed as 31st-fastest in Texas, with an average speed of 54.38 megabytes-per-second or Mbps. (The global average is 23.8 Mpbs, according to the same source.)
Ookla lists local San Antonio Internet service providers’ average speeds from Grande Communications in the best spot (91.96 Mbps), to Time Warner Cable (64.92 Mbps), TW Telecom Holdings (42.14 Mbps), Guadalupe Valley Telephone Cooperative (38.54 Mbps), AT&T U-Verse (17.64 Mbps), to Clear Wireless in last place (5.08 Mbps).
(You may find that your own broadband speed is quite a bit different. Mine was less than half what advertised speeds were for my provider, when I tested my IP address specifically.)
If sadness over reasonably lame Internet speeds is enough to make you wish for Google Fiber, with its promise of greater connectivity, higher speeds and lower prices, all is not lost. According to Nirenberg, San Antonio is still in the running for becoming a Google Fiber city.
“Part of the conversation about a comprehensive broadband strategy is that Google Fiber has never been off the table or moving away — at all,” says Nirenberg. Google, he says, filed a Service Area Footprint with the Texas Public Utilities Commission on June 4th, a filing which should indicate that “we’re moving in the right direction, and getting closer to becoming a Google Fiber city.
“The Google issue is really where technology intersects with our comprehensive planning efforts, and also illustrates the weakness of our historic lack of planning,” Nirenberg said. “This is just my opinion, but I think our city would have been much closer, if not there, to announcing a Google partnership, if it had not been for the sheer size of our city, and all the infrastructure challenges therein.”
The explosion in popularity of smartphones, which somewhat bridge the chasm between those who can afford Internet access at home and those who cannot, is another recent phenomenon, and will present its own set of challenges and opportunities for the city.
“Smartphone technology has grown like wildfire,” Nirenberg said, “which creates new problems for the country in general, but with regard to the City of San Antonio in particular in terms of the siting of wireless towers, and just increasing mobile capacity in general.”
Irrespective of the outcome of pending challenges in the courts to restrictive state regulations over municipal broadband access, “here in San Antonio we are good either way” Nirenberg said. “We’re in a good position, because we’ve fostered and continued to refine policy that fosters a very competitive private-sector broadband market. The use of municipal fiber is one element of that. We have incumbent providers in San Antonio that are getting increasingly committed to upping their game.
“And then with regard to the municipal fiber that we do have, we already have legal authority to connect to public institutions, such as libraries, hospitals, and universities. So my office has been working with ITSD along with CPS to get that (dark fiber) network fired up.
“That’s what this wireless agreement (being proposed), or creating a revenue stream, will allow us to do. We are ready to go forward and start this network up, with our first partners. We have great interest from some of our institutional partners. We just need capital to finish the equipment on the administrative end, and then we get a commitment from those partners to essentially put in the last mile of fiber. We have the ring — they just need to connect to it.”
If that prospect sounds manageable, it’s maybe because it is — at least according to Nirenberg, who admits to being a perennial optimist.
“It’s totally doable,” he said. “What we were able to accomplish in October of last year, was an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU) agreement with CPS. What that did was — CPS owns the fiber, and we technically own CPS. So we needed an agreement with them that basically provided access to that fiber in perpetuity, and that would allow those institutions to connect for a long period of time. Now that we have that IRU with CPS, we can go and do that — and the risk on their part, on the partners’ side to connect, is minimal, because they know they’ll be able to have this service and it’s not going to be money wasted in five years.”
With the election of Mayor Taylor, the city has an elected official at its helm who understands and supports the need for positioning as a high-tech, 21st century city.
“I happen to believe that cities that don’t get on board with technology pro-actively get left behind," says Nirenberg. "I also think that there’s not a soul who’s serving in an elected position in San Antonio who wants us to get left behind on this.
“So I think that technology will wash over us — and there will be those who recognize the wave coming, and do the work as policymakers to capture it — and when we don’t, that wave will still take us in.”
This story was originally published on June 17.
*Featured/top image: The Google Fiber van in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of Google Fiber Blog.