The City of San Antonio has launched a survey to better understand the extent of a problem that leaves a quarter of its residents disconnected to the internet. Roughly one in four San Antonians lacks a high-speed internet connection at home, a “digital divide” that disproportionately affects some of the poorest residents of the city and creates an educational, medical, and economic barrier for those on the wrong side of the divide.

The survey will help the City identify parts of San Antonio where the digital divide is most severe and how to deliver better access to those residents. It poses a range of questions assessing the respondent’s access to computing devices and internet service as well as how they use technology and how competently they use it.

The City began disseminating the survey on Monday to residents from all 10 City Council districts as well as those outside the city limits. It’s available in Spanish and English online. Paper forms of the survey are available at local community centers, public libraries, and other public facilities.

Working in collaboration with University of Texas at San Antonio researchers, the City aims to poll at least 384 residents in each of the 10 districts and a sampling of Bexar County residents who live outside the city limits for a total of about 4,500 respondents. The City will solicit responses until Feb. 2.

“National research shows that investing in digital inclusion efforts provides a return on your investment in education, health, workforce, and economic development,” said Brian Dillard, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer at a press conference Monday. “San Antonio and Bexar County have an amazing opportunity to be one of the first to join forces as a City and County to find collaborative, creative, and innovative ways to connect our communities and reap … [the] benefits.”

Despite ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide, this will be the first citywide assessment of San Antonians’ access to digital resources. Dillard said outreach to those 25 percent of residents that lack internet access will be important in the build-up to smart-city initiatives.

The City last year identified three zones to test smart-city technology, such as streetlights that can detect air quality and autonomous shuttle buses. The military-base-turned-mixed-use-development Brooks will serve as one of the City’s testing grounds for smart-city technology. Discussions are being held with VIA Metropolitan Transit and other stakeholders to bring autonomous public shuttles to the Brooks development. Other smart-city projects will be tested in downtown San Antonio and near the South Texas Medical Center.

“As we do this smart city stuff, … we want to make sure that our citizens actually have access to those technologies,” Dillard said. “I don’t want to throw out this cool stuff and call ourselves a smart city if 25 percent of the population doesn’t have access to that.”

City of San Antonio Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard

Once the surveys are completed, the City and its partners will analyze the results and identify potential ways to address the digital divide. City staff will present findings and recommendations to the City Council in either April or May of next year, Dillard said.

County Judge Nelson Wolff said the County has chosen to locate its all-digital public libraries, known as BiblioTech, in areas of the county that are the least connected, such as the South, West, and East sides. More than 100,000 County residents use BiblioTech’s services, which include free Wi-Fi and public computers, proving the digital divide is real, Wolff said.

“These services wouldn’t be used if we didn’t have a problem,” he said.

The digital divide disproportionately affects low- and lower-income communities. According to data compiled by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 44 percent of households in urbanized counties and 61 percent of households in rural counties lack broadband internet subscriptions.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) called Monday for urgency in tackling the issue locally.

“If I were standing up here and telling you that 25 percent of San Antonians don’t have access to water, or health care, or books, or a sewer system, or energy, I think our hair would be on fire,” Pelaez said. “Mine is, I know that.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.