Reducing poverty in San Antonio may be the city’s most enduring challenge, but eliminating the digital divide, one important measure of that poverty and inequity, increasingly appears to be within grasp.
As the nonprofit San Antonio Digital Connects (SADC) marks one year of work in collaboration with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and a host of community organizations, the outlook is promising and merits a progress report.
The challenge is significant and cannot be met without considerable federal funding. 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 SADC’s Digital Equity Community Plan.
Last month, Bexar County allocated $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved communities, while San Antonio has committed $7 million in ARPA grants for digital inclusion.
So far, SA Digital Connects has measured the problem, formulated plans and moved aggressively to sign up eligible, low-income households for federally subsidized internet service. An Oct. 6 deadline looms for internet service providers (ISPs) to respond to the city’s July request for proposals to deliver broadband internet service to high-priority census tracts and zip codes where service is limited or too expensive for many residents.
Funds in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will flow to states and ISPs to subsidize service delivery to urban and rural areas where ISPs see little profit and have shown little interest in serving. The federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) allows eligible families to collect a $ 30-a-month stipend to offset internet service costs. Federal funds to the ISPs, in turn, will lower the cost of broadband in the targeted areas.
For the marginalized 20% in San Antonio, high-speed service should become a low-cost utility.
I am impressed with the sustained local effort, yet concerned that Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders are not making a comprehensive broadband strategy a front-burner issue as we look ahead to the 2023 session of the Texas Legislature. The nonprofit Texas 2036 has formulated a three-point strategy for the state that calls for a broadband plan, adequately funded staff within a state agency, and a push to get for-profit ISPs to serve all rural and urban communities.
The lack of broadband access throughout rural Texas and in inner-city communities is attracting little attention as campaigns intensify ahead of the November midterm elections. Yet Texas is in line to receive as much as $32 billion via the infrastructure bill to expand broadband access.
Abbott and the Republican-controlled Legislature are expected to allocate much of that funding to underserved rural communities that heavily support conservative politicians. Cities that have been the frequent target of state leaders on a range of issues will have to work hard to win a significant share of those dollars.
The digital divide in San Antonio has existed for nearly three decades, as long as there have been home computers and residential internet service, but the widely ignored inequity came into sharp focus as the pandemic hit and schools and businesses sent students and workers home to shelter.
Suddenly, in a world measured by Zoom meetings and virtual classrooms, 20% of the city’s households were left disconnected, according to the city’s 2019-20 digital inclusion community survey. The impact on thousands of households included reduced job opportunities, student learning loss, negative health outcomes and reduced community engagement.
The digital divide became a new form of segregation in a city already battling the legacy of racial, ethnic and economic segregation.
“The digital divide has been a problem for a long time, but the pandemic raised awareness and we don’t want it to be put on the back burner ever again,” said Marina Aldrete Gavito, SADC’s executive director. “I am definitely optimistic. Our elected officials and the public want this addressed, and federal funds are starting to flow to states. Our goal is to solve this problem in San Antonio by 2025. Once we get this done, we’ll disband SADC and go find another problem to solve.”
The city will conduct a second digital inclusion survey in early 2023, Gavito said, to see what progress has been made to date.
“The next survey should show the divide has been reduced because in that first survey we saw one of the biggest barriers for people was affordability,” Gavito said. “San Antonio has done a really good job of putting a focus on signing up people for the affordability program. I am confident that 20% number will be lower.”
One obstacle to signing up more households via the ACP Toolkit designed by the city’s Office of Innovation team and the Family Service Association is that families without broadband service and, perhaps, devices at home, have to go online to navigate the application process. That’s where community nonprofits can assist.
Efforts to close the digital divide will be more fully explored on Sept. 29 when SADC and UTSA’s College for Health, Community and Policy host Digital Divide: More Than Internet, a panel discussion at the downtown campus. Admission for the noon event is free but requires advance registration.
Panelists include SADC’s Gavito; AJ Rodriguez, executive vice president of Texas 2036; and Mary Garr, president and CEO of Family Service. Roger Enriquez, executive director of Westside Community Partnerships, will serve as moderator.
Disclosure: AJ Rodriguez serves as chairman of the board of the nonprofit San Antonio Report.