Tierrabyte: Addressing San Antonio’s Digital Divide

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South San Antonio High School Instructional Technology Coach Alice Davila (left) explains how to use the personal hotspot to Angelina Morales.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

South San Antonio High School student Angelina Morales listens as Instructional Technology Coach Alice Davila (left) explains how to use a personal hotspot device.

Emily Delarosa, a sophomore at South San High School, often skips lunch to do homework. On a recent Thursday, she again missed lunch – this time for a chance to fix the problem that often makes finishing her homework at home so frustrating: access to reliable high-speed internet.

“I have two younger brothers so I don’t get a lot of computer time,” Delarosa said, explaining that her family shares one computer with unreliable internet access. “We have dead spots at home … and there’s no Wi-Fi at my dad’s.” Delarosa lives west of her school near Lackland Air Force Base.

Delarosa joined nearly 300 of her classmates one day last month at the South San High School for a training session led by representatives of the school district’s technology department. The training helped students without reliable internet access at home learn how to use personal Wi-Fi hotspot devices.

Delarosa’s situation isn’t merely an education issue. Internet access and connectivity also impact workforce development and business investment, as developers are less likely to locate businesses in so-called connectivity deserts. Maps of internet access based on federal data for San Antonio show the highest connectivity rates occur in wealthier neighborhoods, in commercial corridors, and near college campuses.

“The internet economy is increasingly the economy,” said Jordana Barton, a San Antonio-based senior advisor in community development for the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. “We want to move now because we’re dealing with family’s lives. If we wait four years, a kid has gone through high school.”

Barton is part of San Antonio’s Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group of commercial, nonprofit, and educational leaders seeking to bridge the city’s digital divide. So is Scott Laleman, director of technology at South San Antonio Independent School District, who entered the district in Sprint’s 1Million Project Program, which gave Delarosa access to free Wi-Fi.

“We estimate that 20% of our kids may not have internet access at home,” Laleman said. “The program is to help kids that don’t have any access at home, or kids that are in a household where there are multiple students sharing one computer.”

Delarosa was one of 1,200 students who applied to participate in the grant awarded to South San High School this year. She’s one of 300 students who received a free, personal Wi-Fi hotspot device that Sprint has pledged to support for five years. Students qualified based on need, measured by whether they have internet access at home, their household size, and how often they use the internet.

U.S. Census Bureau data from 2016 shows that 83% of households in San Antonio have both a computer and an internet subscription, according to the federal agency’s latest American Community Survey (ACS) data. One critical issue for educators like Laleman involves not only how many San Antonians are connected, but who is connected and where.

Disconnected San Antonians are predominantly older, uneducated, and either unemployed or not participating in the labor force, according to 2016 ACS one-year estimates. While 9.4% of households have a computer but no internet access, 6.6% of households don’t have a computer at home. Connectivity in San Antonio is also broken down by race in the Census data: the percentage of Asians with broadband access at home peaks at 93.1%, followed by whites at 83.7%, blacks at 82.3% and Hispanics or Latinos at 80%. (According to the latest 2015 Census estimates, Asians comprise 2.5% of the population, compared with Hispanics at 63%, non-Hispanic or Latino whites at 26%, and blacks at 7%.)

Having a broadband subscription doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality internet access. Two factors define the quality of an internet connection, experts say: the type of technology used to transmit information and the speed with which information is able to travel through that technology. Information transferred is measured in megabits per second or Mbps.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as including Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable modem, fiber, wireless, and satellite technologies. Of these, “fiber to the home” is currently the highest quality of consumer-grade internet transmission technology. Fiber-optic technology converts electrical signals carrying data to light and sends that light through glass fibers no thicker than a human hair. Fiber is dramatically faster – often by hundreds of Mbps – than DSL or cable modem speeds, which rely on copper wire line.

Click the map legend to explore where different transmission technologies are available in San Antonio.

Click the map legend to explore where different transmission technologies are available in Austin.

Mapping data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for San Antonio and Austin in 2014 shows that the fiber-optic transmission technology is strikingly limited across San Antonio compared to Austin. Fiber is scattered throughout San Antonio’s Northside and downtown commercial centers, while the majority of the city relies primarily on DSL and cable modem for access.

Austin has more Census blocks with fiber access, spread across both residential and commercial areas without clear concentration in a particular part of the city.

A look at maximum download speeds that internet service providers (ISPs) offer in each Census block based on 2014 data (the latest available) show that only a few areas in San Antonio have access to the highest speeds. The majority of San Antonio has paid access to 6 Mbps or less, barely enough to check email, or 10-25 Mbps, enough to power moderate high-definition streaming and online gaming, according to estimates by Engadget. Speeds of 50 Mbps or more are available almost exclusively in Alamo Heights, Tobin Hill, and Olmos Park.

The FCC currently requires ISPs to disclose the speed of internet access offered for each census block in FCC Form 477.

Click on the map legend to explore the geography of maximum advertised download speeds in San Antonio.

Access to high-speed internet is considered a workforce development and financial literacy issue as more and more services, including banking, are exclusively available online. As a result, the FCC voted to classify the internet as a “common carrier” last year, effectively rendering it a public utility – a ruling recently called into question by the new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“You aren’t going to be able to go to the ISP and say, ‘Solve this.’ It requires more community-intensive development,” said Barton, who was instrumental in updating the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to include investment in digital inclusion initiatives.

Under the reinvestment act, U.S. banks are required to meet the credit needs of the communities in which they are chartered, including low-income communities. As online banking allows clients to come from any part of the country, banks find compliance with the act increasingly difficult and have looked to support digital inclusion efforts as a form of compliance. Banks such as BBVA Compass fund strategic engineering studies in San Antonio to deliver broadband to disconnected neighborhoods.

“No doubt we will see examples like that in terms of broadband expansion in San Antonio. This is going to be a great model,” Barton said. “People are starting to see that this can be solved. Now that players are together in the Digital Inclusion Alliance, we can create sustainable change and access for people.”

San Antonio’s alliance, in partnership with the San Antonio Housing Authority’s ConnectHome program, the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL), and Goodwill of San Antonio, hosted the Digital Inclusion Summit earlier this year – an event that brought digital inclusion experts to San Antonio.

DeAnne Cuellar and Melanie Cervantes, two alliance members representing their nonprofit project UpgradeSA, plan to gather public testimony on the issue by hosting community engagement sessions in San Antonio’s least connected communities. As many City services become accessible exclusively online, the two women worry that San Antonio’s neediest citizens will be left out.

“There’s nothing you can do as a constituent or resident in San Antonio without access to technology,” Cuellar said. “We need to do something to jump ahead 10 steps to bridge the divide in San Antonio, or else we’re going to be in a dire situation later on.”

UpgradeSA is taking steps to launch the city’s first comprehensive survey to gather data on the public’s experience with internet service providers and digital literacy later this year.

Meanwhile, San Antonio’s public library system is in the process of leveraging its existing relationship with low- and moderate-income families to improve digital literacy across the city.

“There’s so much demand,” said Candelaria Mendoza, SAPL’s library services administrator. The library system recently launched the LEARN program, which offers digital literacy training to citizens. The program follows Bexar County’s previous digital inclusion initiative, Bibliotech, the first all-digital library in the U.S.

These programs are part of a growing ecosystem of interventions made by both public and private organizations in the city, including SAISD’s Rolling Readers program, Bexar County’s BexarConnect Kiosks, and the Housing Authority’s Connect Home program.

Many digital inclusion programs in San Antonio focus on delivering services directly to citizens, adjusting program availability based on the needs of those who may work several jobs or have limited access to transportation.

Cuellar and Cervantes explained that one of the main challenges lies in reaching citizens who are not aware of how lack of internet access impacts them and connecting with those already burdened by other obstacles, such as reliance on public transportation.

“If we don’t talk to our citizens and we don’t have that participation, how can we truly provide them solutions?” Cervantes pointed out. “We can’t.”

For students like Emily Delarosa, the daily demands of online homework assignments and online social life puts the lack of internet access into sharp focus.

“We don’t all have the money to buy Wi-Fi,” she said. Over the next few years, she plans to put her personal Wi-Fi hotspot to good use.

 

More resources on San Antonio’s digital divide:

SAConnect

List of Broadband Providers in Bexar County

Connected Texas: Residential Broadband by Platform

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