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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio Housing Authority Finalist For Innovative Wi-Fi Access Competition

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Paul Flahive
One of the many multi-family units at Cassiano Homes

The San Antonio Housing Authority is a finalist in the Mozilla Foundation and the National Science Foundation’s Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society challenge.

The nationwide program challenged communities to create affordable solutions for communities that need internet access.

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The SMARTI prototype sits next to one of Cassiano Homes' 42 solar powered light poles.

"I think what's at stake is the future of our kids,” said Jo Ana Alvarado, SAHA director of innovative technology. “They can miss out on education.They can miss out on keeping up with other kids. They can miss out on being able to use the tools to advance and promote them and their future."

Alvarado, who oversees several internet accessibility efforts for SAHA, said the $400,000 challenge award could help connect residents of their largest property, Cassiano Homes.

To do that, SAHA designed and built a prototype called the solar mesh and re-engineered technology innovation. SMARTI is a solar powered Wi-Fi network that SAHA staff want to roll out across Cassiano Homes’ 42 solar-powered light poles.

“Maybe about 10 percent of the people have their own Wi-Fi,” said Valerie Garza about her Cassiano Homes neighbors. “I know a lot of people go to BiblioTech, they go to the library, they go to jobs plus (to connect to the internet).”

Garza is like a lot of the families here, according to SAHA staff —  single-mother households with a couple kids.

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Valerie Garza lives at Cassiano Homes.

The reason her family started paying for Wi-Fi in May was because Garza’s 17-year-old son said he needed it and would use money from his part-time job to pay half the bill.

“It’s teaching him some responsibility,” she said.

Cassiano homes is a 499 unit project built in 1953 on San Antonio’s west side. It covers the equivalent of three city blocks and the number of units and their age offers a lot of challenges to SAHA’s efforts.

“One of our biggest challenges when implementing internet solutions was power,” said Martin Hernandez, network administrator for SAHA. “That’s why we went solar.”

SAHA was awarded $10,000 in an earlier round of the challenge.

It gathered internet technology vendors and integrators in March to find partners, but Hernandez said the private sector was concerned about the timeline. It submitted its prototype for the next round of WINS June 22.

“We struggled to find someone to help us build this,” he said. “The fact that we were able to go to Amazon, purchase the equipment and build it ourselves shows that this can be done and be done on a large scale.”

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SMARTI is comprised of all off-the-shelf components.

Agency staff designed and built SMARTI for less than $1,000 with off-the-shelf technology. Areas with access to the network would have 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.

Hernandez said they’ve been testing the mobile SMARTI unit outside their downtown headquarters without any network outages.

One SAHA staff member will fly to Mountain View, California, on Aug. 14 to pitch the project in the final round. The awards will be announced no later than October.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or follow him on Twitter @paulflahive