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With the coronavirus pandemic quickly pushing forward the need for digital inclusion in San Antonio, the City and local nonprofits have been working to connect impoverished students to the internet so they can complete their school work.
But outside of the classroom, lower-income San Antonians still are lacking internet access for everyday uses such as paying bills, reviewing job listings and applying for openings, and connecting to loved ones around the world.
Through a City of San Antonio initiative called Connected Beyond the Classroom, local officials are pursuing a range of options for getting internet access for people who need it, both inside and outside the home.
Several of these initiatives are designed to be short- or mid-term solutions while the City and its partners work to implement longer-term solutions to fixing San Antonio’s digital divide, said Brian Dillard, the City’s chief innovation officer.
Here’s a look at some of the initiatives outside the classroom taking place in San Antonio aimed at helping those caught in the digital divide and unable to easily access the internet.
Information kiosks and vans
Approved by City Council in 2017 and implemented in mid-2018, a program that placed 28 digital information kiosks with limited Wi-Fi access in San Antonio is poised for expansion, Dillard said. Seven of these are located at VIA Metropolitan Transit bus stops. These kiosks are the product of a partnership with IKE Smart City, a venture of Ohio urban-tech company Orange Barrel Media, and cost the City no extra money, according to Dillard.
“If anything, we actually bring in revenue from the kiosks,” he said. Ad revenue from the kiosks is divided among Orange Barrel Media, VIA, and the City, with the split being determined by if the kiosk is on City or VIA property, said Candaleria Mendoza, San Antonio Smart City Coordinator.
Prior to the pandemic, use of these kiosks was trending upward, Dillard said during the City’s most recent Innovation and Technology Committee meeting. The committee approved a recommendation to the City Council to extend the contract with IKE Smart City another eight years late last month. The recommendation could go before the full Council for a vote by the end of the month.
The City also will be working with IKE Smart City to add more kiosks around San Antonio in the upcoming months. The exact number of kiosks to be added is still being determined, Mendoza said.
While use had been up for the kiosks, Dillard noted they aren’t always located in areas with tables for sitting down and setting up a laptop computer, and with SA Free Wi-Fi already available in any City-owned buildings in the downtown area, those kiosks are better suited to helping people answer immediate questions about wayfinding or local tourism, Dillard said.
This year, the City of San Antonio also entered into a partnership with VIA, San Antonio Independent School District, Northside ISD, and the San Antonio Housing Authority to roll out 26 vans that provide free Wi-Fi to areas in need on a rotating schedule. While aimed at students, the initiative also was meant to help poorer families living in SAHA housing connect to workforce development tools.
Parks and library parking lots
The Digital Inclusion Task Force and Office of Innovation are working with the Parks and Recreation Department to set up eight “community hubs” with free Wi-Fi around San Antonio at park community centers. Four of these are already online at Copernicus, Palm Heights, Southside Lions, and Garza parks, and the City is working on getting four more set up at Hamilton Community Center, Harlandale Park, Melendrez Community Center, and Miller’s Pond over the next few months, Mendoza said.
These eight community centers are all located within the top-50 in-need neighborhoods that the City identified in its digital inclusion survey conducted this year, Dillard said.
“We’re not just presenting an area for students to go in and to do homework or download assignments, but these are also spaces where parents, families, residents overall can go in and utilize those centers to submit housing applications, submit utility payment assistance,” Dillard said. “These are places where [folks] can go within their neighborhoods where we know that they’re needing that assistance.”
These locations will be bolstered with better infrastructure, such as Wi-Fi hot spots and additional cabling to connect to SA Free Wi-Fi, Mendoza said.
The City has also begun expanding Wi-Fi into library parking lots around San Antonio so residents can have access from their cars while branches are closed.
While City Wi-Fi has been available in San Antonio Public Library branches and on SAPL computers for more than a decade, the City has worked over the last few months to make Wi-Fi available in all 29 SAPL location parking lots as well. While most library locations remain closed due to the pandemic, nine branches allow San Antonians to book one-hour appointments to use computers. These locations are Bazan, Carver, Collins Garden, Cortez, Johnston, Mission, Pan American, Schaefer, and Westfall. Appointments can be booked here.
“This is definitely something to fill in a gap for those that don’t have internet access at home,” Dillard said. “We know this is not a long-term solution.”
The City’s IT department was able to work quickly with the SAPL locations to implement these expansions over the summer, Dillard said.
For the past few years, Goodwill has taken donated computers and laptops and issued them for reuse in the community at deeply discounted prices. It also works with the San Antonio Housing Authority to provide connectivity, digital skills training, and job readiness programs to public housing residents.
A small-scale effort to connect people to the internet was undertaken by Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, which bought a $200 router extension and put it in a window facing its large parking lot. The church opened a public Wi-Fi network from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily and advertised the network to its congregation and surrounding area.
The Midtown church’s vice president of client services, Ashley Landers, said she and the other administrators were touched when they received an email from a woman who thanked them for the service, saying it allowed her to complete her continuing education efforts.