Uriel Agundiz used to spend his evenings in McDonald’s. It was one of the only places he could complete his homework. SAISD.

The Lanier High School senior was one of many kids in the San Antonio Independent School District who lacked home internet, so buying a snack off the dollar menu in exchange for access to the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi network became a way to keep up in school.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

But an initiative by SAISD, in partnership with Sprint-affiliated nonprofit 1Million Project, has bridged the gap for thousands of district students on the wrong side of a digital divide – the chasm between those who have internet access and those who do not. Through the initiative, students who lack reliable internet at home receive Wi-Fi hotspots or smartphones that are able to be used as hotspots.

SAISD, which encompasses the urban core and surrounding neighborhoods, has an overall student population that is 90 percent economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. At Lanier High School, a survey at the beginning of the school year revealed more than three-quarters of the school’s students lack internet access at home, and more than 1,500 Lanier students – 96 percent of the student body – are classified as economically disadvantaged.

While the hotspots provide an in-home solution, SAISD has started to address the problem on its campuses. Although fiber-optic internet has cropped up all over San Antonio in the past decade, it has been slow to come to the areas SAISD serves, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. 

District officials decided to take matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, SAISD received a $7 million Federal Communications Commission grant to lay nearly 80 miles of fiber-optic cable below the district to connect all of its schools and facilities. The project is slated to be completed ahead of the 2020-2021 school year.

“We were pushing for more infrastructure and more fiber in our community, and I thought Google or somebody was going to do it,” Martinez said. “We finally got tired and said we’re just gonna go get our own grant and we’re putting on our fiber.”

The problem in SAISD and other economically disadvantaged areas in San Antonio is emblematic of a national trend. In most urban areas, 30 percent of households earning less than $50,000 a year do not have an internet subscription, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those are adults who are cut off from educational and employment opportunities or children who can’t complete their homework and subsequently fall behind in school. It also means a constant search for free public Wi-Fi – and often a computer – to complete job applications or finish research for assignments.

(From left) Angela Guajardo, 15, Mario Zuniga, 17, and Elijah Love, 16, use a Sprint Wi-Fi hotspot device during class to access the internet on a laptop. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The City of San Antonio is attempting to understand the city’s digital disparity problem more completely by launching a study of the digital divide and its impact on residents. With more than 8,000 responses collected, the City has wrapped up the survey and sent responses to University of Texas at San Antonio researchers for analysis. Findings from the assessment – and recommendations for how to bridge the divide in each City Council district – are expected in April.

Angela Siefer, the director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said the digital divide is a product of systemic issues such as poverty.

“That fact that in the United States internet is a commodity, that is something that has been pushed by the internet service providers because, of course, it benefits them – totally logical, right?” she said. “But I think as a country we have to decide if that’s OK with the rest of us. ‘Blame’ isn’t the right word. I think it’s ‘How are we going to take control?'”

Spectrum, one of the market leaders in San Antonio for high-speed internet service, said the company has responded to the digital divide by offering a discounted broadband service called Spectrum Internet Assist, which provides speeds up to 30 megabits per second for $17.99 a month. To be eligible, customers must either have children who receive free or reduced lunch or be 65 or over and receive Supplemental Security Income program benefits.

Google Fiber arrived in San Antonio about four years ago with the promise of delivering a robust fiber-optic network connecting the city, but the high-speed internet service is available in only a handful of neighborhoods, including in Northeast San Antonio’s East Terrell Hills and Wilshire Terrace.

Google Fiber says it’s working to reach more customers throughout San Antonio.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re glad to see that people are paying attention to this issue across our city government,” the company said in a statement. “At the same time, we’re continuing to work to build out our network across the city, serving as many customers as construction allows.”

AT&T said it bases its investment decisions on such factors as customer demand, network capacity needs, and population density.

“The City of San Antonio has made connectivity a priority, and we will continue to work with them as we build out our network and find solutions to best meet the needs of our customers here,” the company said in a statement.

For Lanier, on the West Side, and other SAISD campuses, that expansion hasn’t come quickly enough. In an SAISD districtwide poll, just 40 percent of high-schoolers said they had internet access at home. That’s in sharp contrast to other school districts that have begun to track the trend. In Fort Sam Houston, Northeast, and Northside ISDs nearly 90 percent of students have access to home internet. At Southside ISD, about four out of five district respondents had an internet connection at home.

Ken Thompson, SAISD’s chief information technology officer, said its rollout of free Wi-Fi hotspots or LTE-powered smartphones to more than 5,000 students across the district was about staying competitive and giving all its students equal access to educational opportunities.

“The more that we can level that playing field, the better we can impact the lives of the students here,” he said.

For Agundiz, his school-issued hotspot could end up being life-changing. He’s used it to apply to colleges such as UTSA and the University of Texas at Austin where he wants to study nursing.

“It’s made, honestly, my life easier; it made my brothers’ lives easier,” he said. “And I’m thankful for that.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is the Rivard Report's audience growth editor.