One in four San Antonio residents lacks the equipment, skills, or connectivity for accessing the internet, an issue the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted over the past year.
In an effort to attract federal and state funding to help more San Antonio residents gain internet access, the City’s Office of Innovation and its allies plan to invest in a digital inclusion strategy that will set San Antonio up for long-term solutions.
City officials and leaders discussed the creation of a digital inclusion “road map” Tuesday during the City’s monthly Innovation and Technology Committee meeting. Following the initial success of the City’s Connected Beyond the Classroom efforts, an initiative that helped remote-learning students lacking internet service, Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard said the City and other local digital inclusion advocates have set their sights on taking a regional, long-term approach to providing access to more San Antonio residents.
“There is a current national momentum to accelerate our strategy and efforts … and those funding mechanisms aren’t gonna stop being developed,” Dillard said. “This is really all about making sure that we will be ‘shovel-ready’ for any kind of opportunity that comes through, whether it’s $3.2 billion or $3,200.”
Federal programs the City might be able to tap into include the Federal Communications Commission’s $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $300 million broadband deployment grant program, and the NTIA’s $285 million Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
Discussions about the initiative have been taking place for months, Dillard said. Members of the Charles Butt Foundation in July reached out to the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio, a group of more than 40 organizations and leaders across Bexar County that have been focused on digital equity, asking how the foundation could help invest in expanding digital inclusion, Dillard said.
The foundation was able to help the Digital Inclusion Alliance hire Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to assist the City and its allies in drafting a comprehensive digital equity strategy for San Antonio and Bexar County. Dillard said local consulting group Our Community Inc. also is playing a role by putting its familiarity with the San Antonio community to use.
The City plans to commit $250,000 out of its $27.2 million digital inclusion budget to the development of this long-term strategy, Dillard said. Bexar County plans to match the City’s $250,000, and private partners would commit another half a million dollars, he added. A three-phase, 14-week strategy development period would launch once these funds have been raised. Dillard said local leaders hope for a kickoff within the next month or two, which would mean city leadership would have a set of recommendations to review by the end of summer.
“This is really about taking steps to make sure that we’re not stopping with just Connected Beyond the Classroom, we’re not just stopping with the students,” Dillard said, “but that we’re continuing to identify ways that we can be inclusive of all residents when it comes to digital infrastructure and digital access.”