In 2016 I got a bit of a civic baptism by fire when I was asked to co-chair the Streets, Bridges & Sidewalks Community Bond Committee for the $850 million 2017 municipal bond program.
As a digital economy worker, I sat in bond meetings as we plowed hundreds of millions into roadways for cars wondering, “Where is our bond money for digital inclusion and smart city infrastructure?”
We’ve come a long way as a community since that 2017 bond and, as we approach the 2022 bond, we must think about how we can prioritize digital infrastructure.
Many of us in the San Antonio tech community have been longtime advocates for bigger investments in our city’s digital infrastructure, high-speed internet services, accelerated 5G rollouts, and smart city initiatives. All of this begins by bringing the internet to all San Antonio households.
If there were previous naysayers to the idea that all homes and businesses in our city need broadband services, then perhaps the pandemic was a digital divide awakening. We’ve all witnessed students across many of our underserved neighborhoods struggle to participate in remote learning, causing some to drop off the school map completely.
San Antonio took some initial steps to address remote learning in September 2020, spending $27 million in operations funding to connect 20,000 school children via existing public network infrastructure. But we can and should do more.
Beyond the gaps in remote learning, the pandemic has redefined the future of work in ways that further highlight the opportunities for more digital infrastructure. Our city’s new $154 million investment in adult workforce development and skills training programs should be supported by broad and equitable distribution of online access to area homes to fully succeed.
As jobs are becoming uncoupled from geography like never before, it appears that remote work is here to stay. Many companies are now committing to flexible/remote work and are actively recruiting workers from across the U.S. Locals can now remain in San Antonio and apply to work for a growing number of organizations looking for work-from-home employees wherever they can be found.
But have we built the kind of city that supports broad and equitable distribution of high-speed digital services needed for area workers to compete for these jobs and fully participate in a work-from-anywhere future?
General obligation bond programs are perhaps our most powerful financial tools to transform our city. The 2017 bond program was divided into six propositions: streets, bridges, and sidewalks improvements; drainage and flood control improvements; parks, recreation, and open space improvements; library and cultural facilities improvements; public safety facilities improvements; and neighborhood improvements. Streets, bridges, and sidewalks received the largest share of the $850 million.
The pandemic has clearly underscored the absolute essential nature of broadband internet services for individual and business survival and growth. Digital infrastructure and online access should be viewed as essential services and core city infrastructure mentioned in the same breath as power, water, and roadways. Despite this, our city has made precious few digital investments via the bond program over our long history, and always as an afterthought tucked far within some other facilities budget.
It’s time for this to change. San Antonio must prioritize public investment in digital infrastructure, services, and inclusion via the 2022 bond program. And the time to invest is now. If we miss this bond cycle we risk falling woefully behind other cities making aggressive digital investments.
Cities across the U.S. are having the same digital divide discussion. Ideas range from the build-out of city-owned and operated internet service providers to publicly funded internet rebates for residents who fall a certain percentage below median average income levels. Additionally, some cities are attempting to partner by building and leasing infrastructure to private sector ISPs at reduced costs in exchange for low-income plans and other digital inclusion programs.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg is a longtime champion for digital investment, and council members Manny Pelaez and Adriana Rocha Garcia are providing key leadership. Further, we have the right city staff champions to guide our investment in Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard and Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins, both of whom come from private sector technology careers and experience.
Let’s not miss this moment. We can’t wait another five years. Let’s prioritize investment in digital services and infrastructure starting with the 2022 bond and get the dialogue moving. It’s time for us to close the digital divide and invest in our city’s digital future.