While City of San Antonio officials are working to close the digital divide – a disparity in internet access that one in four residents faces – many of its biggest hurdles remain. 

After launching the initial phase of the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative in August, city officials are ready to see the digital inclusion plan expanded. However, major challenges to the initiative, such as restrictive state legislation and limited funding, still loom, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard said Tuesday.

The Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative aims to bring internet access to San Antonio students within 50 priority neighborhoods identified through a digital inclusion survey completed by the City last year. Through connecting students with their school district Wi-Fi in their homes, the initiative circumvents existing state legislation that prevents a city from treating Wi-Fi as a public utility.

During the City’s monthly Innovation and Technology Committee meeting Tuesday, Dillard and other city officials discussed the initiative’s ongoing “proof-of-concept phase.” The first phase has entailed connecting the homes of San Antonio Independent School District students in six of the 50 selected neighborhoods to their school district’s Wi-Fi. 

The City has been able to accomplish this by installing signal-amplifying antennas on existing infrastructure and distributing equipment, such as modems, to SAISD households in the neighborhoods. So far, three of the five planned antenna sites within the SAISD area are online, Dillard said. Two others will go online in the coming weeks, he said.

The distribution of modems will begin this week and continue through April, Dillard said. Dillard said the City is aiming to hand out 2,400 of these devices.

City officials are also ready to expand the initiative to two other school districts –  Edgewood and Harlandale ISDs, officials said. Details about how many antenna sites and equipment units will be used in each district and how many students will be affected are still being determined, Dillard said.

To expand into a new school district, the City must go through a lengthy process working with each entity, said Craig Hopkins, the City’s chief information officer.

The City is awaiting approval from EISD and HISD on detailed proposals, Dillard said.

Beyond its initial stages, barriers that threaten the project include existing and future funding, Dillard said.

The Texas Legislature has historically protected telecommunications companies from having to treat the internet as a modern utility, he said.

“We’d like a little more flexibility,” Dillard said. “We’ve heard the demand loud and clear that it needs to be more than just K-12 students [getting internet]. It needs to be residents in general.”

The City allocated $27.3 million from the City’s budget this fiscal year toward the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative. Existing funding is only going toward helping install needed infrastructure and the first year of maintenance, Hopkins said.

Between the second and fifth years of the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative, each school district will have to take on operating costs, Hopkins said. By shouldering initial costs, the City has helped school districts plan for costs in upcoming years, Dillard said.

The first year for districts participating in the first phase will end in December 2021, with responsibility shifting to the school districts next January, Dillard said.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.