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Buried in the ground throughout San Antonio is enough fiber to build one of the biggest broadband networks in the country, all fiber and all publicly owned. At the moment, however, the majority of that fiber is sitting dark, waiting to be lit up to serve citizens throughout the city at no charge.
If the network is publicly owned and mostly dormant, why hasn’t it been put to work to help turn San Antonio into more of a technology hub? In the simplest terms, it’s in the works. But it hasn’t happened yet, and most people in the city are unaware of its existence.
The network was conceived more than a decade ago when CPS Energy upgraded the control network for its power grid by putting fiber in the ground, primarily connecting all the substations throughout the city. Planning for capacity and possibly other functions, the energy utility decided to take a forward thinking approach and install far more capacity than it would need. In fact, close to a hundred strands of fiber are a part of the core network installed, with only a few strands in use today.
Since CPS Energy is an entity of the city, the City of San Antonio’s Information Technology Services Department (ITSD) realized the benefits the network could provide for city services. Now ITSD has become the managing partner and operates its own citywide network on separate channels within the fiber. This has allowed the city to put in place an advanced Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone system and expanded technology services without incurring major capital costs.
The challenge for ITSD was how to share the technology more broadly without city funding to underwrite the cost of expanding the network beyond city use. Tight budgets prevented taking the next steps.
Agreement was reached to provide Bexar County’s IT operations its own channel on the fiber network. That’s where matters stopped.
City IT managers did want to expand access to the network, but nothing substantive happened until early 2012 when Leticia Ozuna, a cyber security analyst, was appointed by City Council to fill the seat vacated by District 3 Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos.
Ozuna learned about the unused fiber capacity and immediately realized the potential value of making the network available throughout the community. Ozuna worked with city staff and community leaders to put together the initial framework for the San Antonio Area Broadband Network (SAABN), unveiled a year after her appointment in February 2013.
In the press conference announcing the network, Chief Technology Officer Hugh Miller said that “no additional personnel, no additional equipment. We already spent the money, it is already there, let’s turn it on.”
SAABN is patterned after another public broadband network operating up I-35, the Greater Austin Area Telecommunication Network (GAATN). GAATN is a partnership of seven different government agencies representing city, county, state and education organizations. Leveraging the pole rights provided by the City of Austin, the network has extended fiber throughout city, providing broadband connections, not only for the organizations in the partnership, but interconnections between them.
An example of the value of the GAATN network can be seen at Austin ISD, which has leveraged GAATN to provide advanced services throughout the district. “This includes the capability for the delivery of data, voice, and video services across the entire Austin Metropolitan area. Every AISD campus is connected to the GAATN network.”
Austin is no stranger to high capacity broadband, becoming the second city to be targeted by Google Fiber. But, since Google Fiber targets residential customers, it’s not viewed as a competitor to GAATN. In fact, GAATN and Google Fiber are exploring an interconnect agreement between the two networks to provide residential customers on Google Fiber gigabit access to any of the resources within GAATN.
“If you’re a student on Google Fiber trying to access the University, it’ll be a much better experience due to the peering (specialized interconnection of networks and information),” said Brad Englert, University of Texas’ chief information officer.
Where the two networks differ lies in the network management. The Austin network is a partnership of government agencies managed by elected officials. The San Antonio broadband network has two partners, the City of San Antonio and CPS Energy. Instead, SAABN will most likely offer services through subscription to government agencies in the city and county. Through those subscriptions, any additional network costs could be recovered in subscriber fees.
Ozuna’s election loss in May 2013 caused some to wonder if the SAABN flame would be extinguished. But District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg has picked up the torch and is working actively to make it a priority during his time on council. Two key SAABN beneficiaries, UTSA and the UT Health Science Center, reside within the councilman’s district. Access to the network for the organizations is of particular interest to Nirenberg, who sees the value of having high capacity broadband for biomedical research.
“SAABN will serve as critical infrastructure for our burgeoning bioscience and medical research industry,” Nirenberg said. “Expanding our broadband capacity and access in this sector, in particular, will give us an advantage in increasingly collaborative research efforts. This is just one more way San Antonio can distinguish itself as an international leader in the biosciences.”
Other network users could be added. One possibility is to provide high-speed wireless services to all San Antonio Housing Authority residents. Offering free Wi-Fi throughout a SAHA residential site could give residents access to online services such as job information, distance learning opportunities, and other key benefit services. It would help bridge the digital divide.
Ozuna and Nirenberg were quoted recently in a New York Times article about the state of broadband in America compared with the rest of the world. That article noted that broadband often serves as a catalyst for economic growth.
“The White House cites a study of 33 of the largest national economies worldwide, which found that from 2008 to 2010, doubling a country’s broadband speed increased gross domestic product by 0.3 percent,” the article stated.
While Ozuna has left office, her passion for SAABN has not diminished. “We laid the groundwork for this network many years ago. Although we have had many obstacles complicating the path, I believe we are in a time where the value can’t be disputed. Since I left office, I have been engaged with many conversations with SAABN stakeholders. We all agree there is much work to be done and that is a good thing,” she said.
San Antonio is sitting on an economic gold mine in terms of information technology. Still needed is the political will and resources to maximize access to the fiber network and begin connecting schools, universities, hospitals and agencies.
Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, and Fiesta San Antonio. Randy’s political life took root when several friends from Arkansas pulled him into the first Clinton presidential campaign. Since then, he’s been active in politics and government, including a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams.