Westside Washaterias Become High-Tech Hubs As New Program Tackles Digital Divide

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

An initiative at two local laundromats allows customers to access a digital library, smart tablets, and the internet while waiting on their laundry.

Patrons at two Westside laundromats will have access to laptops, tablet computers, Wi-Fi, databases, and educational tools thanks to a new computer literacy program aimed at residents in San Antonio’s so-called digital deserts.

Known as the Wash and Learn Initiative, or WALI, the Libraries Without Borders program launched Friday at two test sites in West San Antonio. EZ Wash locations on Saint Cloud Road and Culebra roads have been furnished with computing devices, internet, books, and other resources for customers to use while they do their laundry.

Libraries Without Borders, an international nonprofit serving low-income communities, teamed with Google Fiber, BiblioTech, and the San Antonio Public Library to bring WALI to San Antonio. The initiative has been implemented in eight states, most of which are in the Midwest and Northeast. It’s the first time the program has come to a Texas city.

WALI will operate as a pilot program during which Libraries Without Borders and Google Fiber will test the demand for the program or adjust the initiative to reach more San Antonians who lack internet access.

“If it turns out to be something that does have an impact on the local community, and is scalable, then that’s one of the outcomes we’re very interested in,” said Clarissa Ramon, government and community affairs manager for Google Fiber. “Libraries Without Borders has worked in several communities, and they’re one of the partners that has the potential to check all the boxes that we’re looking for in terms of a focus on literacy and on digital inclusion.”

If successful, WALI could portend even more public programs to help underserved areas access digital tools.

“I consider this Phase One of a bigger project,” Ramon said. “I personally think the sky is the limit. Personally, being from San Antonio, I would love to see digital literacy programming available at bingo halls and fruterías. I really would like to put this model on its head and figure out how can we really get to more grassroots communities.”

The laundromat at 7616 Culebra Road will be equipped with Google Fiber, which boasts speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second for downloads and uploads, but the 319 Saint Cloud Road location does not have the infrastructure needed to connect to Google Fiber, Ramon said. Google Fiber’s internet speed is 40 times the amount needed to stream a 4K, or ultra-high-definition, video.

The digital divide affects San Antonians more prevalently than in most other large metropolitan areas in the country. Some studies have found itis one of the least connected cities in the country. One in four households lacks access to the internet, according to federal figures.

In addition to lacking access to the internet at home, low-income residents often have work schedules that prevent them from using the internet at the public library, so equipping laundromats with technological devices gives residents digital access without disrupting their workdays.

“People don’t always have time to actually go to the library,” said Lisa Alvarenga, project coordinator at Libraries Without Borders. “These resources are available at these locations, but it may be out of reach just depending on whether they work multiple jobs – that’s not uncommon, maybe they have kids at school, they have to take them home, make dinner, and then they have to do laundry, so meeting the community where they are is really the main focus of this.”

BiblioTech also will host weekly, in-person training courses and other events to help teach residents computer basics, social media, Google Suite, and other skills. BiblioTech staff can also provide one-on-one help with computing or learning needs.

The WALI program is seeking book donations to fill out the libraries at each EZ Wash location. The group is also looking for an immigrant rights organization to provide services at the two sites. To contribute, email sanantonio@librarieswithoutborders.us.

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