Edward A. Ornelas for the Rivard Report
After living without an internet connection for several years at their public housing residence, Valerie Garza and her 18-year-old son, Randy Reyna Jr., decided to purchase a $52 monthly internet plan from Spectrum.
Randy even paid it in full one month while working a summer job doing maintenance at an apartment complex. It was a financial sacrifice Garza said her family needed to make to access a world that is increasingly online, including homework assignments for Randy and his two siblings.
But Garza and her neighbors at Cassiano Homes, a low-income housing complex on the West Side, will soon have a free internet source: Thanks to an innovative idea from the San Antonio Housing Authority, 42 solar light poles spread across Cassiano Homes' 50 acres will power a mesh Wi-Fi network that will provide internet access to the public housing property's 1,800-plus residents.
From her children's online textbooks to her electronic job applications, Garza realized her family needed internet access well before she could purchase her own service plan, she said.
"[The past] two or three years is when I noticed, everything is online," she said.
The San Antonio Housing Authority was awarded $100,000 in September by Mozilla, the internet organization that develops the Firefox browser, and the National Science Foundation, which organized a nationwide contest for the most innovative ways to bring internet to unconnected households and communities. SAHA's design to build a mesh Wi-Fi network was one of the contest winners.
San Antonio is one of the country's worst-connected cities, with more than one-third of households lacking internet access, according to a recent study based on 2016 U.S. Census data.
“It’s a lot easier" having internet at home, Garza said. "I don’t have to go to the library. I don’t have to wait. I’m not on a time limit. Sometimes they only give you an hour [at the library]. It’s actually helped a lot."
The San Antonio Housing Authority does not know how many of its residents lack internet access, but many residents use the Wi-Fi in community rooms on SAHA's public housing properties. After the community rooms are closed, residents will often bring their devices near to catch even the faintest Wi-Fi signal, according to SAHA.
SAHA completed a prototype of its solar mesh Wi-Fi project, known as SMARTI, in August. It is currently available in one segment of the Cassiano complex, and the housing authority plans to begin work to deliver free Wi-Fi throughout the Cassiano community. A completion date for the project has not been announced, and phone calls to SAHA officials were not returned Wednesday in time for publication.
SMARTI won a third-place prize in the competition in part because it combined ingenuity and social impact, said Lindsey Frost Dodson, Mozilla's senior program officer. The $400,000 grand prizes went to the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, which will develop an 80-foot broadband internet tower to serve residents in rural Appalachia, and Rhizomatica in Philadelphia, an organization working on a communications network that uses digital cellular technology and short-wave radio for deployment during natural disasters.
"We specifically sought projects that could realistically be deployed in real cities and neighborhoods – and SMARTI does just that," Dodson said. "SMARTI's ability to bring previously unconnected or under-connected neighborhoods online will have an outsized impact on San Antonio residents – but also residents in other cities around the country who can adapt SMARTI for their own needs."
Mozilla's WINS Challenge doled out a total of $1.6 million to final-round winners. In June, Mozilla awarded SAHA a $10,000 grant to build its prototype.
The network features 5 megabits-per-second upload and download speeds, which is enough for web browsing and emailing and the minimum speed required to stream HD movies and TV shows on Netflix.
Once the network is set up throughout the 50-acre public housing complex, it will allow families such as Garza's to save the money they are currently spending to purchase internet and instead buy necessities, said Jo Ana Alvarado, the housing authority's director of technology.
"We think it's going to be a huge value to everyone here at Cassiano," she said. "When we went for the Mozilla challenge, we wanted that impact – that social impact – that's why we chose one of our largest properties. There are 50 acres here, 499 units. It was a huge endeavor for us to take on. Now we're very excited that we have some funds we may be able to apply and scale up our prototype."
In the 30 days after the network went online, it had 160 users. In mid-October, persistent rain and cloudy skies blocked the network's solar-power source, so SMARTI's Wi-Fi signal was not available. The housing authority will look to acquire another battery to keep the network powered on through future weather events.
Most Cassiano residents use their mobile phones to access the internet, but programs like ConnectHome, a digital inclusion program for public housing residents, have helped the community increase its computer literacy.
By completing ConnectHome's digital literacy course, Garza won a laptop and personal Wi-Fi hotspot.
In combination with her Spectrum internet plan, the devices have helped Garza's children – and her niece – complete their homework assignments. Garza has already seen academic improvement. Her 15-year-old niece, Jailene Crespo, was struggling to pass her classes, but since she's had access to Garza's internet, she's earned a spot on the honor roll.
Garza also has used the internet to get her massage therapy business, Valaxsation, off the ground. But she can't get fully licensed until she pays off her schooling. She supplements her income with temporary work. After switching careers a few times, Garza said she has found her calling with massage therapy.
"I finally did it," she said. "And I'm really happy. I really enjoy what I do."