A major effort is underway to bridge the digital divide for disconnected students in San Antonio.
One project funded by USAA could be a foundational first step — leading to other projects at school districts and multi-million dollar investments by the city of San Antonio.
For more than a month officials with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Alamo Community Colleges, the City of San Antonio, City Education Partners and others have been in high-level conversations to close the so-called “homework gap” — where many low-income students don’t have internet in the home. The issue took on new importance as classrooms closed and remote learning became the norm in the pandemic.
“I think what the COVID period illustrated to all of us or compounded was the digital divide — a chasm that exists,” said Mike Flores, Alamo Colleges Chancellor, in an interview last month.
One in four San Antonio households lack internet access, according to the Federal Reserve. Districts across the city are spending tens of millions of dollars on ensuring students can learn remotely. SAISD bought 30,000 chromebooks and more than 5,000 mobile hotspots for students as the pandemic kept them out of classrooms.
“When for a fraction of what just one school district is spending, we could actually have a long-term solution, a permanent solution,” said Jordana Barton, senior community development advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ San Antonio branch.
The first result of those conversations is a pilot project that will connect hundreds, if not thousands, of SAISD and Alamo College students on the city’s West Side.
This is an alternative to public Wi-Fi that doesn’t always reach inside the home, requiring students to gather somewhere potentially less safe to access it. Mobile hotspots rely on slower 4G phone networks that often are less robust in low-income communities.
This project will bring faster internet into student’s homes on a virtual network administered by either the district or Alamo colleges.
“I think that this is going to be a national model to close the homework gap across the country. I think in San Antonio, we're taking the lead…,” said Barton.
Many of the details of the initial project are to be determined, but an early version included a wireless transmitter that would beam access to hard wired receivers mounted at students homes.
The transmitter would be placed near Lanier Highschool, one of the most economically challenged schools in SAISD, where 95% of students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Despite the West Side location, the transmitter in the early proposal would have a range of 7 miles, encompassing a portion of the city. The project uses some of the same approaches as another one Barton helped with in Pharr, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border to provide internet access to border Colonias.
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Stakeholders are studying area geography now to establish a final design.
The timeline is yet another area of opaqueness, but what is clear is the early project proposal is an ambitious plan to connect the city’s underserved students.
What is also clear is that the pandemic has crystalized for the entire community how the digital divide could deprive students, as parents across the city struggle to help their own kids learn remotely.
“I think that the education gap, the homework gap is the clearest example of the most accessible image of the digital divide that every American household can grapple with,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
He said he sees the homework gap project as just the first step, calling the divide “insidious” and hindering the economic opportunities of many San Antonio families. Using money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security(CARES) Act, he believes this will build upon and leverage the infrastructure the city already has.
As a councilman, Nirenberg was an ardent supporter of using city-owned and underused fiber optic cable — or dark fiber — to save money, increase bandwidth and build access for everyone. The city’s network is called COSAnet, and projects like the one at Lanier H.S. could be a good fit as they avoid political hangups of cities selling broadband internet.
“This is an asset owned by the public and it will be leveraged for these exact purposes,” he said.
The current COVID-19 crisis may breathe new life into the COSAnet conversation.
The city received $270 million in relief funding from the federal CARES Act. Money that it must use on Coronavirus response rather than using it to fill the $200 million hole in its budget from pandemic-related losses in tourism and other economic drivers.
Digital divide efforts are one area they can invest CARES money, and Nirenberg said they would.
“No community would be doing itself and its citizens a service if we ignored this essential function.”
Just how much is unclear he said, and weeks from being set by city council.
The council was briefed by city staff Wednesday on its spending priorities for the money, but the plan was light on details. A person familiar with the city’s spending intentions said San Antonio plans on putting tens of millions of dollars towards bridging the digital divide.
USAA has thrown its support behind the project. Tuesday, it announced $750,000 for SAISD, Bibliotech and others to bridge the digital divide through access and devices. The money for the Lanier H.S. project will go directly to Alamo Colleges.
“Not only will this investment help support those students in need, those families in need from COVID, it's gonna provide an infrastructure so that there’s enduring support for those families,” said Harriet Dominique, president of USAA’s Foundation.
The project at Lanier is just one USAA directed funds to. It is just one that SAISD is pushing on as well.
“These conversations going on would never have gotten any support before (the pandemic), said Kenneth Thompson, chief information technology officer for SAISD.
He is pushing hard to complete the district’s ultra-fast network. By July each school will have a 10 gigabyte fiber connection. From there the Thompson has even bigger plans, to build out a 4G/5G cellular network from his schools into the communities.
“I think I can saturate,” he said. “I have a school in every part of this city. Sometimes I have schools within a quarter of a mile of each other. I can light up all of San Antonio.”
He wants to connect every student and collaborate with other districts. He pitched the idea to the Federal Communications Commission to ensure it didn’t break any rules, and is waiting to hear back.
Whether it works or not is secondary to the fact that he wouldn’t have even asked six months ago.
He — like many in this arena — is feeling a shift, and is trying to make progress.
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Clarification: An earlier verison of this story listed the incorrect recipient of USAA funds for the Lanier High School project.