Who has internet and who doesn’t is the focus of a new survey launched Monday in San Antonio. The digital divide survey and assessment aims to paint a geographic portrait of the city’s internet chasm.
One in four homes in San Antonio lack internet access according to data from the Census Bureau. This number has remained for years and is based on estimates, but without more granular data the community has been unable to fully understand the issue and target resources.
“We knew there’s a problem, I believe this survey will pinpoint it a little better,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff at Monday’s assessment kickoff at the Central Library.
Bexar County launched BiblioTech — its system of public computer labs and bookless libraries — in areas it believed were most affected by the digital divide, said Wolff. The desire for more connectedness is proven by BiblioTech’s mobile hotspot checkout program, where residents can checkout a 4G hotspot from the county. It has been immensely popular racking up thousands of checkouts.
The city’s Office of Innovation announced the survey this summer. The past six months city staff have been working with professors at the University of Texas San Antonio to craft strategy and survey questions.
The survey opened Monday and runs for two months. Physical copies of the form will be distributed to the city’s community centers, city and county libraries, as well as a variety of upcoming public events.
When it closes in February, the results will be turned into an assessment of geographical locations. Initially the data would be presented broken into report cards by council district, with those areas being given a community profile and report card. But in intervening months, Bexar County decided to partner. It has yet to be determined how it will be broken down now.
City staff drew inspiration from cities like Seattle, Austin and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which mapped their digital divides in past years, so they could more effectively lobby for resources and create strategy.
“The survey is not going to be enough. We’re going to have to follow through with how do we get internet services into these thousands and thousands of homes that do not have it,” said Wolff.
Having hard data to point at will allow officials to make the issue a priority. For all the elected officials present Monday, it is long overdue.
"My kids go every single night up to their rooms to do their homework without textbooks and without paper,” said Manny Pelaez, councilman for District 8. “Twenty-five percent of San Antonians wouldn't be able to go to my kids’ school. That's wrong.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he believes the survey will likely result in more public funds for what he describes as critical infrastructure.
“It’s been my feeling that the digital/information technology section of our public budgets need to go from the back pages to the front pages. This is essential city services not unlike water and electricity,” he said.
But in a poor city like San Antonio where aging infrastructure and neglected neighborhoods are only now being addressed, it’s unclear what that will mean. One idea that has been trotted out in the past was employing unused broadband infrastructure owned by CPS energy. The Texas Legislature passed a law that makes the legality of the energy provider selling internet questionable.
The city has connected some of its public buildings and emergency operations to the “dark” fiber optic cable.
Nirenberg said a study like this in San Antonio and other communities will provide the data to potentially challenge that law.
“There’ll be a case to be made,” said Nirenberg. “If the state and local communities fail to show there is equitable, affordable access to broadband for 100 percent of their community members, I think there’s definitely a case to be made for us to leverage that public infrastructure.”