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San Antonio Housing Authority Claims $100k Prize To Improve Internet Access For Poor Communities

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

The San Antonio Housing Authority won $100,000 from the National Science Foundation and internet company Mozilla for its low-cost solution to connecting residents to the internet, the company best known for its Firefox browser, announced Tuesday.

SMARTI, or the solar mesh and re-engineered technology innovation, is a solar-powered Wi-Fi network prototype SAHA built for the Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society competition, which challenged communities nationwide to help bridge the digital divide.

SAHA wants to mount multiple SMARTI nodes — which use wireless LTE technology to create internet access — at the 50-acre Cassiano Homes housing project.

One Cassiano resident said roughly 10 percent of the more than 1,800 residents have internet access.

SAHA was beaten out by a project in rural Tennessee and urban Detroit for the top prizes of $400,000 and $250,000, respectively.

“Of course I wanted the first place and $400,000,” said Jo Ana Alvarado, director of innovative technology at SAHA, “but with $100,00 it’s very possible that we’re going to be able to buy the equipment and buy some bandwidth and be able to do what we wanted to do in Cassiano homes.”

If successful, SAHA will be giving internet access to more than 13 percent of all residents in San Antonio public housing, which is around 13,500 people. According to the Federal Reserve, one in four homes in San Antonio lack internet access.

“That’s exactly the kind of outcome we had hoped for,” said Mehan Jayasuriya, program manager for the Mozilla foundation. “Sometimes for not a huge amount of money you can have an outsized impact in these areas.”

SAHA was the only housing authority to submit to the competition, which was represented in their entry, Jayasuriya said.

“The technology is actually the easy part,” he said. “The social part and the community part is actually the really hard part.”

Technologists often build tools and then hope they get used, he said. Because SAHA’s level of embeddedness, they will have less of a problem getting people to use it because they started with the need. 

Cassiano is just the latest in SAHA’s efforts, and potentially the widest ranging. As part of the 2015 federal ConnectHome Initiative, it has provided internet in three other public housing sites: O.P. Schnabel, W.C. White, and Charles Andrew, representing about 338 residents.

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

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org