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About 390,000 Bexar County residents — nearly 20% — lack access to broadband internet. These households, most of which are low-income and include children, therefore have limited access to education resources, economic opportunities, and civic engagement opportunities.
A new nonprofit launched last month called San Antonio Digital Connects has developed a road map aimed at closing this digital divide. Now it’s seeking local, state, and federal funding to fulfill its ambitious goals.
On Monday, the organization launched its advocacy effort and announced that former USAA and Rackspace executive Marina Alderete Gavito will serve as its founding executive director. Gavito will lead the charge for the public-private-community collaboration.
“If you don’t have access to the internet, you’re not only left out of the economy, but you’re left out of society,” Gavito told the San Antonio Report on Monday, her first day on the job. “It impacts households, students, older adults, veterans, people living with disabilities, our workforce, telemedicine, and the justice system. … There’s a mindset shift [that needs to happen] where people need to see the internet as a utility.”
SA Digital Connects outlined several ambitious four-year goals for every Bexar County household: reliable access to a sustainable internet speed (100 megabits per second upload and download speeds), service at an annual cost no more than 1% of household income, devices that meet technical requirements for basic applications, and awareness of how to get access.
That latter goal includes ensuring that household members are comfortable using the internet and possess general online literacy, and know how to set up email addresses, Gavito said.
Private internet service providers will also play a key role in implementing the plan, Gavito said, but it’s still unclear what that participation will look like.
An estimated three-year, upfront investment of $600 million and annual state investment of $90 million is needed to close San Antonio’s digital divide, according to the plan. SA Digital Connects estimates that there’s more than $500 million in federal funds coming to the region through pandemic relief and infrastructure bills, although local government officials have proposed a host of potential uses for the money in addition to increasing broadband access.
“We’ll become … an advocating agent in making sure that those dollars are best utilized to close the digital divide,” Gavito said.
A portion of the city’s 2022 bond could also be used for broadband, she said. “We’re going to actively participate in that [bond process].”
As the coronavirus pandemic halted in-person functions in 2020, businesses and charitable foundations recognized the increased reliance on the internet and subsequent anxiety of children and families who don’t have access.
“We all saw that during the pandemic and during the [February winter] freeze … we had to use the VIA buses as hotspots,” Gavito said. “People were parked in the Starbucks parking lot to access the internet.”
A coalition of businesses and local government leaders met over the last 14 months to identify timelines, milestones, stakeholders, and required investment for a plan that ultimately became SA Digital Connects’ Digital Equity Plan and Roadmap.
Brian Dillard, the city’s chief innovation officer, serves on the three-member executive committee of the new nonprofit alongside Luisa Casso of Toyota Motor North America, who serves as chair, and Laura Cole, executive director of BiblioTech.
“We are grateful to our business community for getting us started and sticking with us, and we look forward to turning to SA Digital Connects to guide us into the future,” Dillard stated in a news release.
The SA Digital Connects plan identifies eight key initiatives to address barriers to broadband access, including expanding the physical infrastructure — such as residential fiber, installing broadband in affordable housing complexes, enhancing low-income access programs, distributing devices, digital literacy programs, and keeping tabs on data to track progress.
Gavito said SA Digital Connects’ plan is driven by the need for equity.
“We know that there are huge portions of our community that are underserved or unserved,” she said. “… We do see a large portion of our South, East, and West sides without digital assets. And so [we’re] focusing on that to make sure that nobody’s left out.”