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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio Project Aims To Connect Students To Schools Online

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City of San Antonio
The overall scores for the city of San Antonio

A big plan to connect San Antonio students with the internet is taking shape.

San Antonio City staff presented the city’s digital divide and a plan to address it for students. A report and plan were detailed Tuesday at the city’s Innovation and Technology council committee.

Census data has shown that nearly one in four San Antonio homes lacks fixed internet. 

“Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a necessary utility,” reads the report. 

For an estimated 100,000 households in San Antonio, education, economic development and growth are all being inhibited as a result, it said. 

The report was the most granular look to date at the city’s internet gap, where it exists and what the barriers are to getting it. It includes report cards and the percentage of each council district with broadband connections in the home. Overall it says 80% of city residents have internet access in the home. 

The drop off in connectivity is a North Side/South Side issue with San Antonio City Council Districts 6-10 having superior connectivity numbers than Districts 1-5. This division falls along demographic and income lines as well — the wealthier and whiter north vs. the poorer and browner south.

There is a 32% drop between the district with the most broadband subscribers (District 9 with 94%)  and the one with the least (District 5 with 62%). Reasons people went without ranged from affordability to service reliability. 

"They know the value of it, they prove that out in their responses," said Brian Dillard, San Antonio's chief innovation officer, referring to the more then 6,000 survey responses. "They show that over and over again, whether it's workforce, whether it's education, or just access to basic services, they know the value of internet access."

|San Antonio Finds Opportunities To Close Digital Divide For Students|

The study announced last December was conducted with the University of Texas San Antonio. The report helped guide decisions around a previously reported plan to connect students in several low-income neighborhoods.

The city will invest $27 million to build out infrastructure to ensure students are connected to their school networks. The plan is called “Connected Beyond the Classroom.” The money comes from CARES Act funding that must be used quickly; and internet access was an approved area. As TPR has reported in other stories, some money also comes from private foundation grants. 

The plan will connect school networks to the city’s fiber network, COSANET, where necessary. School districts may partner to provide the service to their students. Some districts — like San Antonio Independent School District — have said they have robust, high-speed networks. Other districts don’t.

City staff mapped out 50 neighborhoods that will be ideally targeted based on connectivity challenges, income status, and city equity maps. Many of the neighborhoods fall within the San Antonio ISD and Edgewood ISD. Mapped, the top 50 neighborhoods create a rorschach image, reflecting itself from the near West Side to the near East Side.

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Credit City of San Antonio

TOP TEN NEIGHBORHOODS

  1. Tierra Linda
  2. Quintana Community
  3. Collins Garden
  4. El Charro
  5. Westwood Square
  6. Prospect Hill
  7. Memorial Heights
  8. Los Puentes
  9. Loma Park
  10. Los Angeles Heights

The first pilot in Connected Beyond the Classroom is a point to multi-point wireless connection system built around Lanier High School. It encompasses 16 sq. miles and six of the top 50 neighborhoods: Prospect Hill, Las Palmas, Collins Garden, Historic Westside, West End, Los Jardines and others.
Ambitious and measured, city staff have stressed throughout presentations and interviews that the project does not compete with private industry, as District 9 councilman John Courage repeated at Tuesday’s committee hearing.

“We’re not in competition with the commercial internet industry at all. We’re trying to make sure that students have full access with their educations,” said Courage.

While at least two cities in Texas have created municipal broadband networks, the area is politically charged and the legality of it scrutinized and debated. City council and staff are eager to distinguish this project as separate, avoiding a battle with AT&T or Spectrum.

District 8 councilman Manny Pelaez requested the project be run past outside lawyers — experts in telecommunication law — to make sure the project isn’t held up.

“I want to make sure that, you know, Spectrum or AT&T don't come back with lobbyists or lawyers, to try to impede our progress after all this good work is being done,” he said in the meeting.

The limited scope of the project, building the access for schools to provide connections to their schools and internet access through that, is a novel approach. Addressing students’ needs has proved politically palatable. 

The project doesn’t address the needs of adults who during a pandemic are cut off from safe health access and many community services. 

“We didn’t go far enough,” said Deanne Cuellar, a committee member who works for Older Adults Technology Service, which provides digital literacy training for the elderly. 

The long-time digital inclusion advocate praised the project but wasn’t satisfied.

“Digital inclusion is a racial justice issue. It is a health equity issue,” she said. “And if a global pandemic and a national call for racial equity isn’t the right time to really dream big and go after what this city needs to truly become resilient, I’m worried that I don’t know when that time will ever come.”

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

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